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Local author William Least Heat-Moon tells the story behind his book

Thursday, June 5, 2014 | 10:08 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 6, 2014

COLUMBIA — William Least Heat-Moon begins writing each of his books with a No. 2 pencil. More specifically, a Blackfeet Tribe pencil from Montana.

"This way there's no commitment whatsoever to what I'm writing," Heat-Moon said Thursday at the Columbia Public Library.

The former MU student and professor and current Boone County resident, who is also known as William Trogdon, came to the Columbia Public Library to tell the story behind his latest book, “Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened.”

More than 30 years had passed since the publication of his first and most famous work, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” in which Heat-Moon documented his three-month, 14,000-mile road trip throughout the back roads of the United States in 1978.

After losing his job as a professor and separating from his wife, he set off on a journey through 38 states in the hope of finding towns untouched by fast-food chains and full of characters. He avoided major interstates as much as possible, choosing instead to travel on secondary roads, which were frequently drawn in blue on maps.

For some, this book was more than a nonfiction travel book.

Kit Salter, a professor emeritus of geography and former chair of the department of geography at MU, used Heat-Moon's book as a textbook for his geography students.

"I told my (students), 'You always ask what should we write, who's our model, how should we shape our seeing of the landscape, our understanding of the landscape,'" he said. "And I said, 'I got the book now.'"

“Writing Blue Highways” is the story of what Heat-Moon experienced after the trip. In this 164-page book, he describes the four-year process of creating the book, including its composition and his struggle to find a publisher for it.

"It wasn't the best four years of my life," Heat-Moon said. "I could dream that the book might find some readership."

Heat-Moon told the crowd of about 100 individuals that a "writer needs to have lots of delusions to keep oneself going."

He imagined that he was writing for a secret society of readers that didn't mind reading sentences with more than 12 words in them, or didn't mind having to use a dictionary while reading his work, he said.

Lisa Groshong, an MU graduate student who has taken a writing workshop taught by Heat-Moon, was a member of this elite "secret society."

During the Q-and-A portion of the event, she spoke to Heat-Moon.

"I gave your book to someone I was seeing, and he never read it. And that was the end of that," she said. "It was a sort of litmus test."

Supervising editor is Landon Woodroof


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