After more than a decade of writing, Billings environmental lawyer Carrie La Seur’s will release her debut novel, “The Home Place,” on July 29.
“The Home Place” tells the tale of Alma Terrebonne, a lawyer from Seattle who must return to her hometown of Billings when her sister Vicky is found dead one winter night. When she returns home, Alma must reconnect with her estranged family members and discover the truth about Vicky’s death. Throughout the story, she tries to understand why she feels such a strong personal connection to her “home place.”
La Seur’s story was born as she was trying to discover the answer to that question herself. Shortly before the beginning of the Iraq War, La Seur was working as a clerk for the federal court in Australia. Many Australian citizens were protesting the war and a few suggested that La Seur should give up her American identity and take up Australian nationality.
“At that point, I had never considered how important my American identity was to me,” La Seur said. “I just had this knee-jerk reaction that, no matter how much I disagreed with my government, I could never be something other than American. I started to think about why that should be so and what in my own family history made me so strongly attached to the place where I grew up.”
Though her family moved around a lot when she was a child, La Seur has been a Billings resident since 2009 and has a lot of family history in the city. She is a seventh-generation Montanan on her mom’s side and a fifth-generation Montanan on her dad’s side. She has incorporated years of family history and personal experiences into her novel. For example, the main character, Alma, is named after La Seur’s great-grandmother Alma Fly Kifer.
“‘The Home Place’ is really a mosaic of a lot of people and a lot of things that I’ve heard about or known or happened to me,” La Seur said. “It is by no means autobiographical, but it puts together a lot of the background that I’ve lived and experienced.”
Part of that background is the city of Billings itself. However, La Seur decided to base her portrayal of the city not so much on the Billings of today, but on the city of the past that her parents and ancestors experienced.
“I was trying to describe the Billings that my dad introduced me to,” La Seur said. “He lived on the South Side and was really poor. His dad worked road crews in summer and was a foreman at the sugar beet factory in the winter. His mother worked on the floor of the sugar beet factory. They just barely scraped by.
“In a lot of ways, Billings is no longer the place that he remembers. It is not as down and out and rundown, but there is maybe nostalgia in that view of it and looking back to what the city used to be … . I’m trying to express not so much what Billings is now, but the reality that in the past, many people were just scraping to survive in Montana but they stayed – not because it was beautiful or because of the mountains, but because it was home.”
La Seur gets published
La Seur had been working on “The Home Place” for eight years when she decided to start searching for agents. “I had finally reached the point where I needed to find out if anybody was interested or if I should just find a new hobby,” she said.
In the summer of 2012, La Seur sent out queries to 20 literary agents. She eventually signed with an agent in New York, and they worked together to develop a polished draft of the novel. She sent the book out to editors in the summer of 2013 and held an auction with six different editors who were interested in buying the story.
The book eventually went to William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins that has published books by such acclaimed writers as Ray Bradbury, Patricia Cornwell, Neil Gaiman and Elmore Leonard.
William Morrow actually bid for two books by La Seur: “The Home Place” and an untitled sequel that should be out sometime in 2015.
“It has a lot of the same setting and a lot of the same characters,” La Seur said. “There are new characters, but Alma is still there and so is Brittany and the grandmother. It will sound familiar to anybody who has read ‘The Home Place,’ but it is also a loose retelling of the story of Hamlet. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you know that it’s one of the bloodiest plays ever and that basically everybody is dead at the end. I had to modify that a little bit so that it didn’t come across as total melodrama.”
“It was a really fun book to write because I could write it in one go instead of writing it in bits and pieces off and on for a whole decade,” she added. “It felt easier than the first time around.”
‘Processing the things I experience’
La Seur has enjoyed writing “as a way of processing the things I experience” ever since she was a child. “The Home Place” is her first novel although she has previously done a fair amount of writing for Plains Justice - a nonprofit organization she formed in 2006 that provides public interest energy and environmental legal services in the Northern Plains states.
La Seur advises that young authors write as often they can on a big project that they care about.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in the writing class and workshop model,” La Seur said. “It didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for somebody else. What works for me is to keep writing on something that is a big enough project that I have to keep coming back to it because I’m interested in seeing how this whole story will play out over several hundred pages … . You need to have a project that’s important enough to you and that will take enough time that it will force you to keep writing.”
Overall, La Seur has enjoyed the 10-year journey that she has taken while writing “The Home Place,” but is excited to move on and tell new stories.
“Looking back, since this was written over such a long period of time, it feels like it was written by a much younger person who was dealing with things that I’ve since worked through and put behind me,” she said. “It feels as if it’s such ancient history that it’s not as interesting any more. There are new things to think about, but it was really important for me to do it at the time.”
La Seur will have a book reading and signing at the Rotary Club at noon on Aug. 4. She will have another one at the Billings Public Library at 7 p.m. Sept. 23. All proceeds earned from copies sold that night will go to the Billings Public Library Foundation.