“People in Montana talk about [the explorers] Lewis and Clark like they came through last week,” says Callan Wink, whose debut story collection Dog Run Moon is largely set in the state. Wink, 31, grew up in Michigan, but he got to Montana as quick as he could to attend Montana State University and, more important, to fish where the trout are plentiful and ski where the views are majestic.
“People are living interesting lives that are very different from where I grew up with its chain restaurants,” he says. “People live in Montana because they want to live there—to ski, to climb. They're bigger characters.”
As are the characters in Wink's collection, who struggle between the weight of responsibility and the allure of freedom. The title piece about a naked guy running from men who wish to harm him for idealistically stealing a neglected dog was Wink's breakthrough when it appeared in The New Yorker in 2011.
Wink wrote poetry as an undergraduate and took a few years off before discovering that MFA programs in creative writing exist. He applied to 10 as a poet, and they all turned him down. For a while he mulled going to law school. Instead Wink became a fishing guide and slowly started to write short stories. “Maybe I was writing them all along,” he says of the narrative nature of those early poems.
He ended up in the University of Wyoming MFA program, where the writer Brad Watson was his teacher. Watson sent one of Wink's stories on to his literary agent who forwarded it to the New Yorker. They rejected it, but liked his style and asked for another story. They took this one and later published two other works from the collection, including “Breatharians,” a tale of a boy assigned to kill feral cats on the ranch where his stubbornly estranged parents live parallel lives in separate houses. That story was later chosen for The Best American Short Stories of 2013.
Perhaps the most ambitious story is the novella-length “In Hindsight,” which follows the life of a woman from youth to old age with all of the joys, pain, and compromises experienced along the way. She decides against following a female lover across the country and the regrets sit inside her like an alarm clock that never quite rings. “It seemed natural to me,” he says. “The woman in that story is a person I could relate with. She solitary and doing a lot of things that would be considered manly.”
Simmering regret anchors the collection. It's something Wink, even at his young age, knows. His mother was a teacher who died recently after a long career, and that sadness looms. His parents decided before Wink was born to raise him in a house without a television. Wink still doesn't have one and is thankful for their decision. Instead he grew up with his nose constantly in a book.
“The one thing that saved me from complete and utter geekdom was I was pretty good at sports,” he says. “I played a lot of football and basketball, but I was still the kid who was always reading.”
That included a lot of pulp westerns that immersed him in the western myth. “It feeds this weird underpinning of my work,” he says. “There's the myth of the stoic outdoorsman and the plight of the American Indian both today and historically.”
In “One More Last Stand,” a married Gen. George Custer re-enactor is mock killed over and over again by an Indian woman who at night is his lover. In “Exotics,” a teacher spends his summer working on a Texas ranch while at once envying his brother's family life and enjoying the freedom in his own lack of attachments.
“There's this trade-off between being able to do whatever you want and perhaps missing out,” Wink says of both the story and his own life. “Writers are always contemplating things that happened and how they could have done them differently.”
Wink’s latest adventure takes him to Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow, where he's working on a novel. But his standards are high. A few previous novel attempts fell short. “I hope the one I'm hammering away on now will be the one,” he says. “I write a ton of stories, but most don't see the light of day. You can't do that with a 300-page manuscript. I've got a short attention span and the novel is mostly middle, which can be tough to deal with.”
Meanwhile Wink's taken up surfing while in California. “I get thrashed a lot,” he admits.
He's also committed to following his own path.
“I'd like to write a couple of decent books and still be a fishing guide in summer for as long as I want to,” he says. “I can only sit and read and write so much each day. I've found half a year outside rowing boats is good for my overall output.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin.