Profiles: David Allan Cates

Soundings is pleased to profile one of our newest faculty members, David Allan Cates, who has just begun his second year with RWW.  Journey Herbeck (Class of 2013) interviewed David over the summer and reflects here on how Cates’ experience of place and community have served his writing and outlook on life.

In 1992, David Cates had a fresh MFA in his pocket and a positive New York Times review for his first book, Hunger in America. He was looking for that perfect faculty job–with a university check that would keep him writing and support his family. He was willing to go from place to place until he found that job, but his wife liked living in Missoula, Montana. Rosalie said she didn’t want to move, that she wanted to build community in one place, wanted their three daughters to grow up in one town. She also knew that writing wasn’t something on which David could depend. But she didn’t waver. I need a real job, he said to her over and over again. Just write, she said. Find some odd jobs to fill the spaces in between. We’ll figure it out. We’ll be okay. We’re going to stay here in Missoula.

I spent a morning in Missoula with David Cates in late May, and of all the things we talked about, this story–of how he and his wife came to stay for over thirty years–was what stuck with me. Maybe it was the way David told it–the obvious appreciation in his voice for Rosalie having made such a seemingly inadvisable, irrational decision for them so long ago, and the way he moved his hands to demonstrate how her stubbornness at that pivotal moment in their lives had kept him writing. She had trusted him to never quit struggling. And to talk to David on that particular day in May was to understand that, though he has struggled to make all life’s ends meet, he realizes that his life and his writing could not have been accomplished in any other way.

We began our conversation in the Cates’ kitchen with David’s youngest daughter Margi, a jazz singer who plays regular gigs in local Missoula bars and clubs. There were jokes at David’s expense, a few at mine, and Margi spun it all together over tea and banana bread–a true performer. Afterwards, he and I headed on foot toward downtown. We walked down Higgins Street, past the Dairy Queen that stands a couple of blocks from his house.

“I’ve never bought my kids one thing from that place the whole time we’ve lived here. I refused right from the start. But they learned to just go up and ask them if they had any ‘mistakes’ and in minutes they had their very own banana split. Maybe it had chocolate sauce instead of fudge, but they didn’t know the difference.”

We continued along the trail that rims the Clark Fork River. We took side streets through established neighborhoods shaded by large maples, then cut across the University of Montana’s campus where David showed me dorms he had lived in his freshman, sophomore, junior, and even senior year in college. (“Why would I have wanted to live off campus when I had someone cutting my lawn and cleaning my bathroom on campus?”)

Wherever we walked, people flagged David down to say hello. Some were excited old ladies from writing workshops he had held in his home, others were teachers from local high schools in whose classrooms he has taught, and still others were simply people he knew from having lived in one place for over thirty years. This is not to say, however, that David Cates has not experienced other places.

I asked him about the extensive time he has spent and continues to spend in Latin America. As executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, David leads a group of doctors and nurses to Honduras on medical brigades three times a year. Once in-country, his work doesn’t stop. While the medical professionals provide care that small municipalities aren’t able to supply, David works with local cooperatives to find ways to deliver children’s medicine from Tegucigalpa to small mountain towns in western Honduras–a five-hour trip that raises the medicine’s price six-fold.

This is not easy work. Hondurans have seen every development idea under the sun and have seen most of them fail, leaving them worse off. But over time, David has cultivated confianza; he knows a guy he has grown to trust, and this guy has grown to trust David. Ideas are exchanged, mechanisms are put in place, and medicine arrives only centavos above Tegucigalpa prices. A few children receive a respite from fever; a few parents buy a little time to get their children to a doctor.

I asked David how his time in Latin America affects what he chooses to write about. He admitted he isn’t clear as to how these experiences act upon his writing. He certainly doesn’t travel in order to find ideas; the medicine cooperative guy doesn’t automatically become a character in one of David’s stories and David doesn’t feel driven to write about doctors on medical brigades. He described the effect of his travels on his work by explaining how he goes crazy if he always writes in his house and at the same desk.

“I can’t do it. So I change places. Sometimes I take the computer to the kitchen table. Sometimes I’m on the couch in the living room. Other times on the porch. I need to move. I need a new view. And traveling is the same. I go to Honduras and something about being there allows my mind to think in a few different ways–ways that are probably unbeknownst to me–and I can’t say it is the place that is affecting me anymore than it is the people. But it’s just that the view is different. It doesn’t mean I write about Latin America; it just means I’m able to attack my writing problems from a different angle.”

The Latin American lifestyle also draws him back: “You can walk fifteen yards down from the place where you are staying and have fifteen different conversations. It’s incredible. People are just out. People want to talk. It’s what they do. They just interact differently down there.”

As we merged back onto Higgins and passed the Dairy Queen again, we had more conversations with people that David knew. I’m not sure if they were neighbors, former students, or just familiar faces he’d seen around town. Maybe they just stopped to talk because that’s what people in real communities do. But it felt familiar. It felt right. And David knew it, too–although he didn’t mention it right then. This was his community. Where he had struggled every day and loved it. Where his wife had made one decision a long time ago, unwilling to compromise, unwilling to consult the committee. And they had figured it out. They had done just fine.

David Allan Cates is the author of Hunger in America (Summit Books, 1992), a New York Times Notable Book, as well as X Out of Wonderland (Steerforth, 2005) and Freeman Walker (Unbridled Books, 2008)-both Montana Book Award Honor Books. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and he has written travel articles for Outside Magazine and The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

Journey Herbeck is a fiction writer in his second year at RWW, and, like David Cates, he divides his time between Latin America and Montana.