There’s a little town on the Pine Ridge of western Nebraska called Chadron. Not too many have heard of it. If anyone would care to listen, you might be able to explain to them that this unknown area of America has its own particular landscape. It’s not quite plains, nor is it simply forest or mountains. It’s all of these things and none of them at once. There’s a little state college there, but it’s mostly a cow town.
The essayist and novelist Poe Ballantine ended up there the first time in 1994 much the same way he has ended up other places in his life—it seemed like a reasonable place to live at the time. Cheap rent. Walkable. Different enough.
Ballantine has been writing for many years. He’s written stories, essays and novels, some good enough to land in major anthologies (both Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories.) He’s not an unknown writer, but he isn’t on best-seller lists either. Many of his most ardent fans found him in the Sun magazine. Cheryl Strayed, a confessed admirer, wrote the introduction for his latest book.
After teaching English in Mexico, where he had met his wife and the eventual mother of his son, Ballantine came back to Chadron in 1999. He took jobs cooking and cleaning floors, writing four hours a day, trying to help his wife adapt to America.
Then Chadron State College math professor Steven Haataja suddenly went missing, and in an instant Chadron was in the national news.
After months of looking, a rancher found Haataja dead in the hills behind the college, his body burned and tied to a tree with extension cords, and just like that Ballantine had all the material he needed for the true-crime memoir “Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.”
The mysterious death of the math professor provides the drama in Ballantine’s book, and his stories about his immigrant Mexican wife and their young, possibly autistic, son provide the humor.
The book came out in September of this year, and Ballantine has quickly learned how small a population of 6,500 can get when you’re the subject of all the local gossip.
Haataja’s family and the cops are steadfast that it’s a suicide. Others believe it’s a murder. You’ll have to read it to see what side Ballantine’s on.
What are the people of Chadron saying about your book? It’s a small town. I’m sure they’ve been talking.
It’s a buzz that has me rattled. I was generally ignored, along with the four books I published, for the first eleven years I lived here. Now I’m center stage, the talk of the town. Everyone knows where I live. They drive by slowly, gawking. They stop and have me sign a book. Most of the talk is positive, even grateful. Some are outraged by injustice. Some are upset by the things I’ve said. I have been accosted. My house has been vandalized. I have been threatened with three lawsuits and a punch in the nose. I was confronted two weeks ago by a man nearly in tears who asked me why I had to go and write this book. Why, he wanted to know, couldn’t I have left the case alone?
You’ve lived in a lot of places. How are you finding staying in one place?
Itinerant travel has its appeal, but it’s pretty lonely. I was ready to quit roaming by my late thirties but I’d fixed my trajectory by putting every last dollar on the literary wheel of fortune. Being constantly broke, trapped in bottom-rung jobs, and regularly starting all over in a new town, I accidentally created a niche, one many thought that with interstates and franchises and college loans was no longer possible for a writer in America. Staying in one place has its advantages, especially now that I have a family. I have many friends and enjoy a good standing in the community, but I don’t belong here. My wife feels the same way. I don’t know where we belong, so Nowhere, for the time, will have to do.
To build on that, you wrote “you have to be a special type of person to be content here.” Have you found any peace in Chadron?
There was peace before this book came out, and once the hubbub subsides, if I don’t get lynched, maybe there will be peace again. I like having my own kitchen, bookshelves, a garden, freight trains across the street, good neighbors, my son over there playing his piano. I don’t know about contentment. I’m used to contentment being a signal that I’m about to get slammed, so I’m dubious about contentment.
Are you the kind of writer who makes his major decisions with his writing in mind? Or have your moves been made more due to circumstance? Some artists are extremely calculating about these things.
I’ve had opportunities to go to places where I didn’t really want to go, Montreal for example. I could’ve probably written some edgy travelogue about Montreal and the crazy people with fur hats that I met on the bus and the lovely Canadian woman who lost her tooth in a loaf of bread, but I didn’t want to go to Montreal. My moves were almost always dictated by necessity: the need for work, cheap rent, a city small enough to negotiate on foot, but the material that came out of those moves, the people I met, the jobs I got, was as unpredictable and natural to me as I hope it is to my reader.
I know you’ve talked about it a lot, but can you explain the problems you had with Haataja’s family? And how you went on with the work after the sisters had expressed their desire for you to stop?
From the beginning Steven’s sisters and mother were vocally opposed to my book and refused to cooperate on any level. They managed to influence most of Steven’s circle to keep me from learning much about him personally. I can’t explain or justify the family’s position. If my sister or son ended up burned alive in the hills tied to a tree, I’d damn well want to know what happened. I also felt an obligation to my community for their safety and peace of mind to find out what happened. The mother and sisters claim to know the truth (their italics) about Steven, though they haven’t divulged to anyone, including law enforcement, what that “truth” might be. My understanding is that the mother is domineering, her daughters do her bidding, and I’m not the only one to suffer their wrath. Perhaps Mother is afraid that her behavior had something to do with her wonderful son’s demise, especially if she believes, as all the family members continue to insist, that it’s a suicide. I’ll add that they refused to read my book or even ask about what approach I might be taking. They took a similar reactionary stance on Dave Jannetta’s excellent documentary about Steven. One of the sisters finally did read my book, and both have seen a rough cut of the documentary. For the time they seem appeased, at least they’ve stopped following my every move to discredit me.
Are you still actively pursuing this case?
I’m in the middle of it whether I like it or not. On a daily basis, at the grocery store, on the street, I’m taken aside and drawn into lengthy discussions. Several people have contacted me privately with information, theories, and opinions, none of which have added up to much, except for the woman who explained to me the difference between endogenous and exogenous alcohol formation. In a nutshell she said that Steven’s “extremely elevated” BAC (blood alcohol content) MAY have been the result of decomposition rather than excessive consumption of alcohol, as the story, including mine, is presently being told. The only way to forensically distinguish between alcohol consumed before death and alcohol produced postmortem by fermentation, she told me, is by extracting fluid from the eyeball, and there was none of that to be found after ninety-five days of exposure to elements, animals, and insects.
You’ve worked as a restaurant chef and line cook. How would you compare the act of cooking to the act of writing?
My specialty is soups, and I see many correlations between a good soup and a good story. An attractive title is important: Beef Burgoo with Black Barley, I like the alliteration. Burgoo is a nautical creole term implying thick and spicy, the way a good story should be. This is also a dark, meaty soup with the word “black” in it, very appetizing. The body of the dish is stock made from roasted and long-simmered bones, your own bones in the case of literature. As you’d never use anything but butter in your roux, amen for your prose. Good cooking like good writing involves risk-taking, so leave convention as soon as possible and don’t hesitate to add or subtract whatever instinct and experience tell you will work. In every good soup and story there’s an ingredient that the diner can’t quite identify, sweet marjoram or a man asleep with a towel over his face under a pinball machine. And don’t forget the liquor. If you’re not drinking it yourself, hit the hot roux with an ounce and shout: “Fire in the hole!”
How important do you think mystery is to a writer? I don’t mean in the “mystery thriller” sense, but in the sense of leaving questions unanswered?
There’s a dog lying over there next to the heater. He has a certain nature, form, personality, replicated genetically, we’re told, in infinite variation through eons, yet no one knows a thing, really, about how this dog got here, why he’s growing old, why he’s so cute, why he sings in his sleep, why he loves pancakes, why he will die and be succeeded by another. Mystery is the only thing I’m certain of, and by its definition it can’t be known, but I still tackle it, dismantle it, label it, color it, run to the top of a hill and look down on it, have three drinks in the evening and find it each time at the bottom of my glass. Mystery is important, I reckon, because it’s all we have.
Here’s the link to the book:
About the interviewer:
Bart Schaneman lives on the Great Plains. His writing has appeared in Per Contra, Matador, Pindeldyboz, The New, Northwind, Thought Catalog, Fahrenheit, Punch Drunk Press, and more than a few newspapers in both the U.S. and Asia.