Eastern Montana native Tom Biel toured the state last week following the release of his debut book, “Badlands: A Collection of Stories.”
It’s not a typical Montana book, Biel explains. There isn’t “any mining, fishing, ranching, or intense relationships with nature.”
Mainly, it’s a coming of age story set in the Badlands.
“I grew up mostly in Glendive. I think the town, the people, the place and the Badlands themselves made an impression on me that never left,” Biel said.
The stories’ main characters are Matthew Davis and Idaho Wells, two young men who live in the fictional eastern Montana town of Riverside during the Vietnam War era.
“It’s a unique, different point of view,” he said.
Biel was born in Sidney. He attended the University of Montana and the University of Northern Colorado.
His father was the late Rev. Kenneth Biel, formerly of the Ebenezer Congregational Church in Sidney.
“There are 10 stories in the collection, and each and every one of them have an event, person, or place that’s real,” Biel said. “I used that as a starting point, and then followed the characters.”
Although Biel drew from his real life experiences, “Badlands” is ultimately a work of fiction. For example, in one of the stories, there is a reverend who has a crisis of faith, which Biel says never happened with his reverend father in real life.
Biel describes his literary style as “simple and lyrical,” a style that stems from his beginnings as a young poet.
“Poetry has so much intense value on individual words and lines, and that influenced me as I wrote,” he said.
His two main literary influences are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett. As a high school English teacher, Biel taught Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” repeatedly throughout the years, which instilled a deep appreciation for Fitzgerald’s “carefulness and intensity of language.”
From Beckett, Biel enjoys the “simplicity and minimalism” of his plays.
Biel himself has written four plays, none of which were published but a few were produced in New York City and Germany.
Of the 10 stories that make up the “Badlands” collection, Biel singles out “The Telescope” as his favorite.
“The Telescope” is the story of young kids eavesdropping on an older, voluptuous woman, and a brother who has an objection to the Vietnam War draft.
It’s a blend of humor, mischievous behavior, and serious political turmoil.
He hopes his debut book will effortlessly entertain readers. “To me, what makes a book worth reading is that it’s enjoyable; you don’t have to work at it,” he said.
Biel currently lives in Milwaukee, Wis., with his wife, Lena, and their two young sons.
“Badlands” cover art was painted by artist Dale Beckman, who is originally from Glendive and currently lives in Helena. More of Beckman’s work can be viewed at dalebeckman.com.