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Anyone who spends any length of time in Montana can’t help but have a personal relationship with mountains. 

Mountain philosophy is key to “Sun House,” David James Duncan‘s most recent novel and first since 1992’s acclaimed saga “The Brothers K.” This latest, which was reconfigured more than 100 times in the 16 years it took to write, is a 770-page long and winding road of a story about an “unintentional menagerie” of wounded people who form a communal cattle ranch in the fictitious Elkmoon Mountains of Montana.  

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“Sun House,” while not easy to describe, is a true epic in which Duncan, 71, tries to encapsulate the joys and pains of being human. Characters undergo great suffering (one man is nearly beaten to death by a parking lot trash container) only to persevere and find themselves on the other side of the Elkmoons (the man recovers to become a roving preacher of a new open-hearted theology, Dumpster Catholicism). 

Spanning decades, “Sun House” makes time for all this: Long quiet moments in nature, Vedic literature discussions, births, deaths, the existential and actual effects of climate disaster, billionaire comeuppance, a canine Shakespeare star, redefining the American Dream, goofy sex, Beat poetry, and unconditional love among friends, all while a river of whiskey runs through it. 

Being a professional, I read “Sun House” in a month’s time. As a book lover, I wish I could’ve savored it over a full Montana change of season. Preferably in a log cabin, deep among the mountain Ponderosa pines, with a roaring fireplace and a well-stocked trout stream and rye bar at hand to aid in unlocking the full spiritual “Sun House” door. Alas, I’ll have to live vicariously through Duncan’s prose, which he kindly discussed from his home in Missoula along Rattlesnake Creek. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. I won’t ask “what took so long,” but I have a couple of questions about the writing process. When you first started “Sun House,” did you have an understanding that it could become such a massive undertaking with so many characters living long full lives?

Part of writing “Sun House” came out of wrestling with my despair about the planet Earth, how it continues to be chewed up by extraction industries that don’t care about the repercussions, environmental or human. A big turning point was realizing a freestanding novella I’d written could be the second ‘telling’ in the book. Titled “The One-Book-of-Poems-Long Marriage,” it’s about the brief-union-into-marital-break-up between Lorilee Shay and husband Trey Jantz who try and make it a go of it in a Colorado mountain town. It hit me that “Sun House” could be told through characters loosely based on people I’ve loved throughout my life. I’ve known so many wonderful tremendous people who try to live responsibly, to share a common decency and an environmental responsibility, that I can’t believe I live in the same country as the one I see on the nightly news. 

After that breakthrough, I decided to try and give all of my characters the full five senses, including their contemplative inner lives, so hopefully, people feel like reading a book of this length comes to be like hanging out with old friends. Characters like Lorilee and Trey disappear for lengths at a time, but readers have told me they like bumping back into them. It’s a more satisfying familiarity meeting them a second time. I’m happy to hear it. 

Q. “Brothers K” comes in at nearly 650 pages, did that experience give you the idea to follow the “Sun House” muse wherever it went, length be damned?

Certainly, “Brothers K” helped give me the tools, but my affinity for long novels goes all the way back to college. I studied “War and Peace” with historian Charles Le Guin (husband to the great sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin) and felt there is something special about a long novel. When it’s skillfully done, a long novel almost adds an entire incarnation to your life – in Tolstoy’s case, like you lived in 19th-century Russia. 

In the heartbreaking opening of “Sun House,” an airplane bolt breaks loose and plunges 38,000 feet, instantly killing an 8-year-old girl in Mexico, which is based on an actual freak event years ago. It’s a weird, unspeakable tragedy that begins a long journey for a group of people that will end in them surrounding, and spontaneously singing, as Lorilee dies. In many ways, she becomes the community’s consoler for family and friends mourning in the room, a bit like my mother’s hospice. I can’t read that scene out loud because I lose it every time. There are depths and experiences both reading and writing a short novel can’t match.    

Q. In a span of seven months, I lost my dad to cancer, surrounded at his Montana home by three generations, and then my mom to Covid in a New Jersey hospital, just the two of us and I was in a hazmat suit. ”Sun House” resonated personally because of its combination of humanity’s best and worst, of any given individual’s life cycle of delights and horrors. Was that idea always central to the book?

Yes, because I knew I would lose massive numbers of readers if “Sun House” came off as Pollyannaish. I put my characters through hell because as you know, a lot of life is dealing with scary situations and their aftermath. There is a long passage in the book where Lorilee and her boyfriend Grady Haynes are escaping a mountain forest fire. She gets seriously injured, so he carries her down the mountain and inhales so much smoke he ends up with permanent lung damage. It’s a work of fiction, but a scenario I’ve lived through. Twice, we’ve almost lost our Montana home to wildfires – one time I didn’t evacuate, hid from the cops to water the roof and save the fort. As a writer, I wanted to be true to the hardships people endure. 

Q. “Sun House” takes place in the modern era, but it’s steeped in the glacial metaphysical quality of the natural world. How did that inform the literal passage of time while working on the book?

Writing the book was a generally organic process. So if there were times when I felt my consciousness needed to evolve to complete a chapter, that I was too stupid to truly write from inside of characters wiser than me, I would move onto something less taxing and not return until I was ready. There are scenes in “Sun House” walking a tightrope between staying grounded in the natural world while giving characters experiences that can’t be accounted for with just reason and rationality. Calling something mystical sounds like a silly buzzword, but I’m not afraid of writing about events like that. I’ve had them myself. 

There were also mornings when I would wake up at dawn thinking about a different project altogether, so I wouldn’t work on the book because it wasn’t on the forefront of my mind. Back before “Sun House,” I built a writing studio in Lolo Montana and had the carpenter make 12 cedar boxes for manuscripts. I separated them into literary categories and over the years, the work has grown. I have a pile of narrative essays to wrangle into a collection and a rhyming graphic novel in the realm of myth about our inability to save the salmon and steelhead in Idaho’s Columbia Snake River System. It’s also a part of why “Sun House” was such an undertaking. I should add my famous editor Michael Pietsch – who also edited David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” so he knows from epic books – was great about it. He saw progress with each new section and gave me an unheard of ten contract extensions. 

Q. Mountains are the defining metaphor in “Sun House.” Are they to be conquered on high or marinated from within? 

One summer in my 20s, I spent 100 days, seven-and-a-half miles from the nearest road, in the Wallowa Mountains, often referred to as “the Alps of Oregon.” They are incredible, lots of white marble, which lights up the landscape. The footing is so good on that type of rock I could set out in any direction without a compass and track of the ridges. I stopped hardcore camping in my 30s after my daughters were born and “Brothers K ” came out, but mountain adventures like I had in the Wallowas – the idiot joy in wandering about John Muir was famous for – have been marinating ever since. Decades later, those times were essential in writing “Sun House.” 

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