You may already be familiar with the oeuvre of San Francisco novelist Russell Rowland, though you may not know it. A few years back, Steven Yang, owner of local fortune-cookie maker M&Y Trading Service Co., went looking for somebody to write fortunes for a nominal fee; through a series of odd connections, the job went to Rowland, a 44-year-old writer and bookkeeper. He wound up writing more than 600, and though the gig makes for a good cocktail-party tale, Rowland's loath to describe the experience as fun. Coming up with all those pearls of wisdom was "pretty grueling," he says, and some of the results were creepily ominous ("After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil").
If the fortune cookie job was hardly sophisticated art -- what serious author wants people adding the words "in bed" to the end of every sentence? -- Rowland's first novel, In Open Spaces, is a different matter. Following the trials of a Montana ranch family between the World Wars, the book is a compelling glimpse into prairie life during the Great Depression, bolstered by Rowland's strong dialogue and cinematic eye for landscape details, cultivated while growing up on a ranch in Billings. Though the book looks at Montana at its snowbound, dust-choked worst, it's persistently hopeful and often witty. As narrator Blake Arbuckle grows up from an aspiring baseball player (Satchel Paige has a cameo) to a seasoned rancher with his heart in the fields, In Open Spaces emerges as a fine first novel about the strength of family, while avoiding the Hallmark treacle that theme implies.
Like the narrative itself, the book's path to publication was lengthy. Rowland first wrote it 11 years ago as a graduate student, then dusted it off a couple of years ago and sent it to HarperCollins, which accepted it. Thanks to a revolving door of editors, the book got caught in publishing limbo, so Rowland devised an attention-getting scheme: He mass e-mailed everyone he knew and asked them to order the book online. In Open Spaces shot up the Amazon charts (on one day it was the 249th-best selling book on the site) and held the No. 2 slot on Amazon's San Francisco list -- a year before the book was published. In the meantime, Rowland finished up his next novel, Dig, which returns to Montana, this time in the present day. The state carries an oddly hip cachet lately, thanks to a recent flood of well-heeled California homesteaders and movie stars looking for rustic authenticity, but Rowland argues that the appeal of the place is that it doesn't change. "The influx of Californians is really concentrated in Bozeman -- that area's changed quite a bit," he says. "Most of the state is still pretty isolated and barren." In other words, it's fair game for a novelist looking to find the beauty.