Brad Listi (BL): Okay. I figure we should get this show on the road. Shann Ray, thanks for joining us today and congratulations on your success with AMERICAN MASCULINE.
Shann Ray (SR): Thanks, Brad.
BL: How’s it been going so far?
SR: Whirlwind. Like one of those dust devils on the Montana plains, and I’m standing in the middle of it.
BL: You’ve been making the rounds online to promote?
SR: I can’t believe how much love there is for debut books online. So far it’s been a ton of love from The Nervous Breakdown, and a bunch, as well, from The Quivering Pen, Beatrice, Largehearted Boy, NPR online and more.
BL: Has this part of the publication process surprised you at all? Or were you prepared for having to do some of the heavy lifting when it came to getting the word out?
SR: I’ve always been interested in the pathway of books and the role of authors in that path. My daughter thought up a sweet guerilla marketing campaign in which you tag a million friends to enter every bookstore where your book is on the shelves and secretly put it up front. Problem is, I don’t have a million friends.
BL: Heh. Your daughter has a bright future. And here’s a question from Johnny Evison about your experiences living on the Cheyenne Indian reservation….
Johnny Evison (JE): I feel like some of the best writers are those who have enjoyed unique experiences growing up. Tell me a little about being one of the only white kids on the Rez.
SR: The Rez was a fascinating blend of a lot of initial fear and a huge amount of ultimate joy. My brother and I and one other guy were the only white kids. Basketball is a form of salvation there. It helped me immensely. Also, humor is like cash, and I love humor, so that was great. I’m returning there two weeks from now to put on a basketball clinic in Lame Deer. My nicknames on the Rez: Salt and Casper the Friendly Ghost. My best friend’s nickname is Pepper. And yes, we were Salt and Pepper before Salt-n-Peppa.
JE: How much of AMERICAN MASCULINE is autobiographical?
SR: There’s only one story that is directly autobiographical, though that one also has a major sidetrack from autobiography.
BL: And which story is that?
SR: That story is “3 from Montana,” and in reality my bro didn’t die. In a way, though, the beatings we receive are symbolic deaths. The rest of the stories have their threads from real life. Many of the Native names and people are real, many of the occurrences, especially the violent ones and the very tender ones, are from moments I’ve witnessed or seen in family or on the Rez or across Montana.
JE: “3 From Montana’ is a powerful story. How about father issues? I know it can be tough when your dad is the coach . . .?
SR: There is that large abyss we all must cross in the name of father, I believe, and it is fraught with dangers. And also the imperiled interior that is like a large beast pursuing me, us, and there is the hope that a return to the real experience of father, not the false or empty or vacuous or over-hungry, will draw us to a place of deeper reality and thus deeper peace.
JE: Boy, that answer sounds kinda’ political! Sort of deftly evasive. Of course, I’m just a nosy son of a bitch.
BL: That’s good. We like nosdy around here. Shann’s on the hot seat!
SR: Alright. Put the question right where you want it. The father issues? You mean my own, JE?
JE: I ask because I’ve got all kinds of father issues. Most of the coach’s sons I grew up with had it pretty tough. That is, the competitive coaches.
SR: My dad was an ultra-huge presence. It was like we walked in his shadow and in that shadow there was immense pain and fear and the will to please and the will to hate him. Thankfully, other father figures helped me understand how to embody and embrace his weaknesses, as they exist in me, and do some good long years’ work toward forgiveness, not just of him, but also involving my own asking forgiveness for the ways I’d silenced him and over-condemned him. Nice brief psychology class there. Father issues are like blood in America. Everyone alive has it.
BL: So, you’re a professor of leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga. How do you teach someone to lead? How do you teach someone to forgive?
JE: Forgiveness is powerful stuff.
SR: A deep question, leadership and forgiveness. In forgiveness, I think of my mother forgiving my dad, and my dad forgiving his mother, and that mystery is enough to take me all the way to the far shore, even if the boat is sometimes small and beset with oceanic chasms and waves like mountains.
In leadership, I value Greenleaf’s notion that true leadership evokes in self and others greater wisdom, health, freedom, and autonomy, and it serves the least privileged of society or at least does not do greater harm.
Greenleaf was a fascinating cat. A Quaker. A reader. A thinker. A person of heart married to a person of, perhaps, deeper heart (he would say). He was a contemporary of Frost and E.B. White and knew them. He also wrote a gorgeous essay on Frost’s poem “Directive.” He was a kind of philosopher poet who also happened to lead AT & T through the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
LLZ: Do you believe leadership capabilities are innate or can fully be taught?
JE: Great question, LLZ.
SR: I believe leadership can be taught, however, the place each person starts (with personality, temperament, personal gifts, collective gifts, psychological understanding, depth of balance between love and power) are very different. So for some, the ability to lead in a way that draws humanity to a more true experience is very far away and demands years and for others, the pathway is more natural. Of course the imbalance and narcissistic drive is never far away from any of us, in my opinion. On one side, the over-powerful and ambitious. On the other, the co-dependent and those afraid of power. Both are forms of over-self-focus.
JE: Man, you need to run for office, brother. You’re the king of the slick, palatable answers to tough questions.
EOL: Seriously. He has my vote. And: Can you talk a bit about your writing process? I realize this is a bit of a common question, but I’m always curious how different writers approach their work. For example: do you work everyday? How long did it take you to write the stories in AMERICAN MASCULINE?
SR: Thanks, EOL. The stories in AM started about 12 years ago. I tend to always be working on various things (poems, short stories, essays, social science, novels, etc.). Having three daughters, I’m often at ballet lessons and the like, so I normally work on stories and poems there. I try to keep 10pm-1am the hours for writing and reading and being quiet and listening. If I go past 1am, which I do when a fire sets in, I get ugly to live with.
BL: Heh. Talk to Evison. This is a guy who pees in mason jars when things are going well.
JE: I’m so hard to live with, my wife makes me go camping by myself.
SR: The question is, do you see the mason jars as art, JE? The shine of a liquid tone of sun through the glass. Also: Is “camping with myself” code for something?
JE: “Camping by myself” is code for ALL KINDS of stuff!
SR: And to get back to your comment on politics, JE: It would be kind of fun to get a cadre of writers together to assault the bastions of political power with some graceful and torqued philosophies of individual and collective life together. We ready?
BL: Vaçlav Havel.
SR: I love Havel. Consciousness precedes being; his elegant evocation of the Velvet Revolution. I’m of Czech heritage myself.
BL: How close are you to your roots there? Do you feel a strong ethnic tie?
JE: I sense that you certainly feel a pull toward your Indian heritage–that is, living all those years on the Rez.
SR: I am pretty close to my [Czech] roots. Much of my research in ultimate forgiveness as the counterweight to ultimate violence in the world has come from the Czech lands, the Velvet Revolution, the tragedy and triumph of Lidice, a town where the Nazis massacred many, and where years later, reconciliation came. And the authors there, too, offer a great central heritage to me. Klima and Kundera and many others.
SR: And yes, there’s a sense of family, warmth and all-encompassing love that I receive from my Cheyenne, and Crow, and Blackfeet, and Sioux friends that is not something I can replace.
BL: All of this Havel talk actually brings up an interesting question, vis-à-vis leadership. As someone who studies this stuff for a living, what are your views on political leadership? Things are so ugly in the world, and in Washington D.C. here at home. I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible for someone to effectively lead at that level. You look at a guy like Havel, who couldn’t be a better example of the principled revolutionary, and even he seemed to struggle when power actually became his. Am I too cynical? (I hate to throw you such a broad, bottomless question…it just seems like politics is where good leaders go to die.)
SR: You bring up a great point, Brad. The fact that evil and good co-exist and are perhaps in an embrace — something like life, or death, or sex, or dance. I do believe the world is sometimes too cynical, which leads to greater nihilism, which leads to objectification of humanity and despair and eventual decadence and death… but then again that likely leads to the sledge and rot and thick brown earth from which new life comes. A systems philosophy, and also one that many artists tend to take below the veneer of cynicism.
BL: Figuratively, usually. Literally, sometimes.
SR: I do know a number of politicians whose interior life is gorgeous. And then again, there’s Weiner.
BL: Man. Weiner. You can’t write this stuff.
SR: My wife and I, both being trained as psychologists, laughed for an hour when we found out his name is Weiner. Get your name legally changed before the bad press hits. Perhaps to something like Donger or Cocker.
JE: I knew we’d be talking about wieners before this was over.
BL: Evison did call it.
SR: American Masculine.
BL: I want you guys to know that I’m shirtless right now. I hope it’s okay to share that.
JE: I’m not biting, Listi.
SR: The image of Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind.
BL: I look more like his maid. (Laughter.)
So here’s one more question related to your profession — what is a “systems psychologist?”
(Your *other* profession, I should say.)
SR: Systems psychology is akin to systems in biology and the science behind the biological notion of systems and feedback loops and homeostasis, and static and dynamic elements that are hard to discern, though definitely comprehensible, and when some foresight or depth of awareness is gained in a family system, or organizational system, or national system, small movements can create great change. Though it always takes time, of course. For example, research shows that it takes three to five years for character change for a person from the point of total brokenness or total willingness to change.
Gloria: Hello!! Is the party still happening? Did the keg blow?
BL: We’re still here, Gloria. Welcome to our Sausage Fest. You’re the one woman in the room. Look out!
Gloria: Listi throws down the gauntlet and assumes I’m afraid.
JE: Will you hold my baby, so I can get a picture, Shann?
SR: I held your baby last night, JE. Isn’t that what you call your wife?
SR: Couldn’t help it. Had to get some basketball trash in there.
Gloria: It’s what he calls his mom.
SR: Thank you for that vintage body blow you just gave JE, Gloria!
JE: I’ve got a couple mom zingers I could come back with, but I better not.
SR: It might get nasty.
BL: We’re already devolving at a pretty nice clip here. Part of our rich tradition.
EOL: If AMERICAN MASCULINE were a cologne, what would it smell like?
SR: AMERICAN MASCULINE as a cologne…great question. Something clean when in the wilderness, likely none, but on the weekends, something French with some feminine undertones.
BL: I smell pine. Leather.
JE: It would smell like leather, and you know it!
SR: Good touch. Pine and leather. Those boys will have their lace too.
BL: I wish I knew how to quit you, Evison.
EOL: Oh very fancy. I like Shann Ray’s. I was thinking well-worn horse saddle and Xenadrine.
SR: I just heard JE’s back break. On a mountain.
JE: That’s what they all say.
SR: There is that good scent of horse hair, literally, after the horse has broken a sweat. A great favorite of mine. My grandpa had a huge palomino horse named Comanche. I’d lay on that horse’s back as a boy and smell that coat and fall asleep.
Gloria: If AMERICAN MASCULINE were a car, what kind of car would it be? (I’m guessing not a Prius.)
BL: I drive a Prius. (And have ovaries.)
SR: Definitely a number of great cars come to mind. The huge Cadillacs of the 70s, Chevy trucks of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. How about for you all?
BL: I’m thinking a Hummer. Though that might be overly compensatory. Jeep?
SR: My wife saw my dad’s Corvette once, sitting like a gem in the garage. She said, and I quote: “Does this make you feel like a bigger man?” He sold it a year later.
BL: What year was the ‘Vette?
SR: The ‘Vette was a 90 I believe. He kept it for a few years, very nice, silver. But I think he felt like it was too much, drew too much attention. He’s a truck guy and an old cheap car guy. We had 5 or 6 vehicles for $100 or less growing up.
BL: Rumor has it that your mother grew up in the town of Cohagen, Montana. Population: 8. And it had a store and two bars! True story?
SR: True story. Great town, out in the middle of the nowhere, wide open eastern plains of Montana. I spent summers there with my bro. Small ranch with some cattle. Horse or two.
BL: Sounds idyllic.
Gloria: Idyllic and maybe the perfect place to commit a heinous crime and get away with it…
SR: Not idyllic. Like many Montana youth, I felt bored to tears at times but then there was also the great fun of hunting for frogs and snakes and running like a wild animal wherever you wanted to roam.
And yes, the quiet and sometimes not so quiet violence that accompanies a lonely landscape.
BL: In a recent interview you did with The Barking, you said the following and it really struck me:
“After my mother and father had some tumultuous years, the family came to believe in each other more fully and experienced some much needed healing by seeking a congruent family life in the context of belief in a power greater than ourselves. I was about 10 years old and from that point, when formerly my family was largely agnostic or at least functionally atheist, we began to listen and seek to understand in an entirely new way. The difference was palpable, and in our case, the family certainly would have disintegrated without that difference. The Christian tradition, though I realize it has been very painful for some, was a true power to us and in fact made us more grateful for each other, and better able to live for each other.”
Can you talk about this a bit more? I’m curious how this conversion happened. Was there someone who guided it or did you just start going to church?
SR: Great question. My mother’s close friend, Lori, is one of those people in whose presence you feel physically near to the center of life, or near to God, or very near to what I experience as love. She built a powerful friendship with my mom and that’s what started it. Lori’s life embodied a faith that had emotional, intellectual, and soulful depth and it impacted us like a train and my mom and brother and I jumped on gladly. A year later, my father did too, through his own pain at the loss of the family and his desire to rebuild something. They did great work rebuilding and forgiving and changing their lives to not be so hard on each other. The church we went to had an inherent kindness. Not without its faults of course, but such faults of human hypocrisy exist everywhere, in the person of faith as well as the atheist, and there is always a real result that comes from people living with integrity and, again, a true balance of love and power.
BL: Wow. Well, that sounds like a really compelling Christian experience. (As compared to, say, my Catholic experience.)
Gloria: I didn’t enjoy Christianity, ever.
SR: I think for me, not having had church experiences and really having that home experience that was laced with alcohol and living hard lives and some violence and a lot of infidelity, the desire that exists in many people to live in order to love well was like topping those vistas in the Beartooth range in southern Montana and seeing the world again as if for the first time.
Gloria: I will say that the people like the way you describe Lori always made me appreciate people who live their faith in an honorable way.
SR: Living life in an honorable way is a beautiful thing.
BL: I suppose it depends on how it’s taught — and by whom. And in what context, and so on.
SR: I agree. The teaching and, of course, the abuses of thought and emotion and spirit tend to undercut all. I find that is true everywhere.
BL: Well, Shann, we’ll be able to discuss all of this in greater depth on Friday during our podcast conversation. Before we let you go, though, we’re going to subject you to our vaunted “Lightning Round.”
BL: The way the Lightning Round works: We ask you a series of rapid-fire “either/or” questions and you respond in a word or two, quickly. Make sense?
SR: Got it.
BL: Okay, people…here we go…let him have it!
BL: Salinger or Carver?
BL: Beer or whiskey?
SR: Whiskey for sure.
Gloria: Sam Kinison or Bill Hicks?
SR: Bill Hicks.
BL: Emerson or Thoreau?
BL: Magic or Bird?
SR: Isaiah Thomas.
SR: But not as a GM or a coach.
BL: (No kidding!)
BL: Pessimistic optimist or optimistic pessimist?
SR: Healthy skepticism.
Gloria: Kirk or Picard?
SR: Picard in a minute.
BL: Mozart or Beethoven?
SR: “Ode to Joy” is impossible to beat.
Gloria: Facebook or Twitter.
SR: Facebook. I like pictures.
BL: Binge writer or disciplined writer?
SR: I seem to do both.
BL: Bacon or steak?
SR: Steak with bacon on top, and gravy.
BL: Nuts or berries?
SR: Twig and berries? Berries.
Gloria: Binge or purge?
SR: Binge all the way.
BL: “Kill your television” or “Love my TiVo!”?
SR: I love to murder televisions.
BL: In the wilds of Montana.
SR: Walking outside any day over the tube sucking me in.
BL: Alright, Gloria. Hit him with one more.
Gloria: Ebook or book in print?
SR: The physical specimen in my hands, though my bro works for Microsoft and will dislike me greatly for this.
BL: The times they are a-changin’.
Gloria: Family conflict – drama – makes a great book.
BL: Okay, Shann. Thank you so much for making the time to be here.
SR: Thanks, everyone!
EOL: Amazing. Thanks so much for your stories. Stay tough at those ballet recitals.
Gloria: Thank you, Shann!
SR: Thanks, EOL. I’ll try to get some of the other parents into some leg wrestling.
BL: Goodnight, everybody!