Honoring Blackfeet author James Welch: A Q&A with Lois Welch

The former director of the University of Montana’s creative writing program reflects on life with her late husband and the upcoming James Welch Native Lit Festival.

 

In May 1967, Lois Monk, a newly hired assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Montana, was invited to a party at a friend’s rented Forest Service cabin to celebrate the opening day of fishing season. The cabin was located on Rock Creek near Missoula, Montana, so she drove out there in her “little blue Sunbeam convertible.” On her arrival, she was greeted by the renowned poet and teacher Richard Hugo and one of his students, a shy Blackfeet poet named James Welch. Later that evening, after cocktails and dinner, Monk found herself taking a moonlight walk with Welch. “Jim kept saying, ‘Isn’t this the most beautiful place in the world?’” Lois later recalled. "And I kept thinking, ‘I mustn’t be swept off my feet.’ But our relationship pretty well took off right there forever after.” The couple married about a year later, in 1968, and stayed together until Welch’s death in 2003.

In the course of those 45 years, Jim and Lois Welch built a beautiful life together. Lois would go on to serve as director of the university’s creative writing program, while Jim helped carve out an exciting new path in the publishing industry for Native fiction writers, something that had seemed all but been impossible in previous decades. His legacy lives on today. In fact, this week, July 28-30, the inaugural James Welch Native Lit Festival will be celebrated in Missoula, featuring writers like Tommy Orange, Louise Erdrich, Sasha LaPointe and David Heska Wanbli Weiden, among others. The festival seemed like the perfect occasion for High Country News to sit down with Lois Welch and talk about the life she shared with Jim.

Lois Welch is the retired director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana and wife to the late James Welch.
Ben Allan Smith

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris La Tray: You were with Jim before his writing career took off. What was it like?

Lois Welch: I remember writing someone and telling them that living with a writer is like living with a refrigerator: The door is closed, but you know it’s going all the time. 

CL: Jim studied with Richard Hugo, but only published one book of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40.

LW: Yes. He took his first poetry workshop with Hugo in 1966, and he felt he was in over his head. 

CL: Was that why he turned to fiction? Because Earthboy 40 is a masterpiece.

LW: No. When he was in the workshop, he felt in over his head because he’d never been in a poetry workshop, and he thought all these other guys were so sophisticated and he wasn’t. But that’s not true, either; it was how he thought of himself.

Hugo kickstarted him. Hugo said, “You don't know much about poetry, do you?” and Jim said, “No!” and Hugo said, “Well, what do you know?” As Jim described it, he sat for a long time and nothing came to mind. Finally, he said, “Well, I know about the Blackfeet,” and Hugo said, “Write about the Blackfeet.” Jim said nobody will be interested, and Hugo said, “You don’t know that. Give it a try.”

In 1971, World Publishing published Riding the Earthboy 40. They printed 4,200 of them, they distributed 1,700, and ground up the rest and poured them in the Hudson. So, in 1971, Jim went on his first big reading tour. Through all of that, he didn’t even realize that when you go on a reading tour, you’re supposed to have books to sign — because there weren’t any! So it wasn’t until, I think, 1975, when Harper & Row reissued Riding the Earthboy 40.

CL: That would have been after his first novel then, Winter in the Blood.

LW: It was reprinted because of Winter in the Blood, which was reviewed on the front page of the Nov. 17, 1974, New York Times (Book Review). That’s when his fame took off. 

James Welch.
Courtesy of Lois Welch

CL: When were you approached about this James Welch Native Lit Festival?

LW: When Sterling (Blackfeet writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, the festival organizer) emailed me: “Can I call you, I have an idea. …” I’d never dreamed of such a thing. But it was a great idea.

Between 2003 and 2014, when Alex and Andrew Smith finished the film of Winter in the Blood, there were several James Welch celebrations here and there, and I would go and do my “James Welch widow talk.” That was gratifying, and by 2008 I was already realizing I owed the world his biography, and I wanted to do the memoir. Because everybody was always asking, “What was he like?”

CL: Tell me about the memoir — or your “Jimoir.” 

LW: I started writing it in 2008. I finished the first draft in 2015 and sent portions off to Jim’s agent and editor, then went off to Europe for a while. They said it was too chronological, and, of course, they were right. Then, when I came home, I had my stroke.

CL: That was 2016.

LW: Yes, 2016. In October of 2016. It took me two years to be able to get working on it again. I had hoped to finish it this summer, but something happened along the way.

James and Lois Welch.
Courtesy of Lois Welch

CL: Something came up as it often does — yes, this festival. Do you think, moving forward, you will be as involved in the festival as you have been this year?

LW: What do you think?

CL: I think it will be impossible for you not to be. You’re the “Lifetime Honorary Historical Archive.”

LW: Exactly. Precisely. I think that’s true. But on the other hand, I don’t come with a guarantee. And I think they are planning every other year, and in two years I’ll be 88 years old. Will I still be able to walk? To talk? Who knows? It will be a wonderful celebration.

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