Montana State University

New bestseller has Montana and MSU roots

June 22, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Reif Larsen headquartered in Bozeman and MSU while he conducted much of his western research for his new bestseller, "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet." Photo of Larsen courtesy of The Penguin Group.    High-Res Available

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There are several plot turns and secrets to be uncovered in "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet," which is one of this summer's hottest new novels. But for Montanans, some of the most intriguing surprises in the novel are the books' roots in Montana and Montana State University.

The book is written by first-time novelist Reif Larsen, who does not live in the state but who has visited Montana frequently. Those visits increased when his college friend, Eric Bendick, moved to Bozeman to become a graduate student in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program.

"I think Reif knew that he wanted to set a book in Montana, so it worked out well that I was here," said Bendick about his friend from the days when both were undergraduates at Brown University. "The more he came out here and the more research he did, the more he decided to use a Montana setting with a tie in to Bozeman and Montana State University."

The protagonist of Larsen's bestseller is a 12-year-old genius cartographer and illustrator who hops a train to journey from his home on a ranch in Divide, Mont., to Washington, D.C., to accept a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian. According to the storyline, Spivet is nominated for the award by his fictional mentor, the mysterious Dr. Terence Yorn, who is an MSU entomologist. The scientists at the Smithsonian assume from the quality of his drawings that the brilliant Spivet is a graduate student at MSU rather than a lonely kid who makes sense of his world through detailed maps.

Larsen did some of his research in MSU's entomology lab. While there is no Terence Yorn at MSU, there is entomologist Michael Ivie, who, like Yorn, is a beetle expert. Bendick, who recently graduated from MSU's award-winning science and documentary filmmaking program, took Larsen to Ivie's lab to study the tiger beetle. In the book Spivet's mother is obsessed with that species of beetle.

"(Mike Ivie) wasn't there when I visited, but one of his assistants showed (us) around," Larsen said. "That's how I chose the species for my book. You want to do a little research."

That research also resulted in the mention of MSU President Geoff Gamble by name.

"I definitely left room for invention, but I do know the lay of the land at MSU and was able to give the little details that give the book authenticity," Larsen said recently.

Larsen said that initially he was nervous about the details of the setting and how Montanans would receive the book. That was, until he visited bookstores in Missoula and Butte earlier this spring.

"I didn't know if they would accept the book as authentic, but the people I met there seemed so enthusiastic about it," Larsen said. He read to audiences at Missoula's Fact & Fiction Bookstore as well as at the Butte Public Library. "One of the people at the Butte reading said he bought a book for every person who lives in Divide ... 14 books."

The 29-year-old writer, who earned a whopping $950,000 advance for the book by Penguin Books in a publishers' bidding war, said that he has been taken with the West for a long time. When he began to visit Bendick, some of the ideas for the book gelled.

From his base in Bozeman, Larsen traveled to Butte where he did more research and the book's characters evolved. The boy's Montana sensibilities are central to his actions throughout the book, as is his relationship with his parents, a rancher father who consciously emulates John Wayne, and a mother who seems to have little interest in anything but her research project.

"They have two ways of experiencing the world they live in -- the mythic and nostalgic way of seeing the West versus the empirical way of analyzing what happens. And those two different currents are still at work in the West today."

Much of the story is told in marginalia, footnotes and drawings, which Larsen, the son of two artists, drew himself.

"I didn't set out to write an illustrated book," Larsen said. In fact, the first draft of the book had very few images. "Then I thought to understand the character, the reader needed to see his maps and diagrams." Larsen, who is a graduate of the Columbia graduate writing program, says that he sees himself as "more than a writer, but as a storyteller. I ask myself, how do you tell a story in a lot of forms?"

One of the innovative forms that Larsen uses to tell his story is the book's Web site, http://www.tsspivet.com/, which is much more than a publicist's or book group's tool. After the story ends in the book, it jumps to the Web site, which is a multimedia banquet.

"Those who visit the site can start to put together what happened after the book ends," Larsen said. "Some of the basic questions about the book will be answered there."

In fact, Bendick, who says he "knows a few secrets" about the evolving story, shot some of the video for the site, which is full of clues and Easter eggs similar to those used by the popular television series "Lost." The connection between book and Web doesn't necessarily make "Spivet" a new type of book, Larsen said.

"Books have been with us for a long time and I think they'll be around for a long time." Rather, he believes the challenge of the future is how books can "talk to the media around us."

"How do you hook a 20-year-old reader in the space of a novel?" Larsen asks, pointing out that in many ways the characteristics of the Internet are opposite to a book, encouraging little depth. But both mediums can make the reader fall into the story, he said. "I think there's room in the future for a novel that, once completed, has dialog with the media that encircles it. It's a good challenge for writers and storytellers."

Bendick says he didn't really give Larsen any inside information about the university or the state.

"He is a pretty observant guy who absorbs information from his surroundings," said Bendick, who is credited in the book. While at MSU, Bendick developed the award-winning Web site "Terra: The Nature of Our World." http://www.lifeonterra.com/. The site, which is maintained by graduate students in MSU's Natural History and Documentary filmmaking program, hosts free podcasts of science films.

"I think it made sense for him to include MSU in the novel because it is such a focal point for the area and the character would have seen it as a resource," said Bendick, who is now an independent filmmaker based in Bozeman.

Larsen has criss-crossed the country promoting the book and recently returned from Europe, where the book is quite popular. He said he believes that's because "for Europeans, Montana holds even greater symbolism than it does for Americans. It's still the theater of the imagination. Even while America has a love affair with the frontier, it is more palpable from abroad."

The book has done well, reaching as high as number 18 on the New York Times bestseller list. There is a groundswell of word-of-mouth support for the book, fueled by positive reviews on National Public Radio, among other media outlets.

"When I first started the book, my one wish was to just have one of the (publishing) houses see the book for what it was and want it," Larsen said. "Anything after that was a bonus. Then after that, my next hope was that I would get to write another book. So, yes, the book has exceeded my expectations."

Larsen is at work on his next book, which is also an unusual story. This one involves puppeteers traveling in Africa. But in the meantime, he said he would like to return to Bozeman, possibly to do something with MSU students.

"If I can get MSU on the map a little more, I'll do my part," he said.

Eric Bendick, ebendick@lifeonterra.com