Robin Troy has always wanted to write a story that shows that age is just a number and the human spirit is ageless. “We live in a society that doesn’t pay attention to the elderly,” she says. In her new novel Liberty Lanes, published just last month by the University of Nevada Press, the associate professor of English and director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing looks at the lives of a group of senior citizens who come together at a bowling alley in Montana and are determined to live life to the fullest.
So far, Troy’s book has garnered some positive reviews. Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red, says, “Liberty Lanes is a transcendent story about the power of love and friendship. You’re never too old to discover the wonders of love.” Deirdre McNamer, author of “Red Rover,” says, “Liberty Lanes is a wonderfully calm and large-hearted examination of the ways that ordinary people meet the demands of age and infirmity with surpassing grace.”
Troy says she began writing the novel on a CSU grant in 2006, during the summer after she first came to Southern. She was inspired by a group of senior bowlers she had come to know in Missoula, Mont., where she was a graduate student in the University of Montana’s M.F.A. program and a reporter for a local newspaper.
Around the holidays, Troy’s editor at the paper asked her to write a feature story about someone playing Jesus in a pageant. But Troy asked around and couldn’t find anyone playing Jesus; however, she told her editor she could do a story about a 70-year-old man she knew who played Santa. Each year at Christmastime, he would dress up as Santa and board a helicopter with another man dressed as an elf, and they would fly to several Montana towns, delivering chocolate Santas and outdated chapsticks donated by Avon.
“I met him when he was in his 30th year of playing Santa,” Troy says. “We really hit it off.” He invited her to meet him at the local bowling alley to finish her interview for the article.
“I walked into that bowling alley, and whammo!” Troys says. The place was full of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, “and there was such positive energy and perspective, I just immediately wanted to be a part of it.” She started spending time with the bowlers.
During the three years that she was in Missoula, working on her degree, Troy says, “these people made a real difference” for her. They have parties on the weekends, to which she was invited, and “by the end, I was like a member of the family.”
“This group was a fantastic illustration of what it’s like to be in your 80s and really living with spirit,” Troy says. The characters in the novel are inspired by the people she knew, Troy says, but no one character is any one real person.
In the novel, Liberty Lanes is a bowling alley in a small Montana town where a senior bowling league meets three times a week. Nelson Moore, one of the bowlers, has recently become a local hero by saving a teammate from choking on a happy hour chicken bone. Now he must deal with his newfound fame while coping with the early stages of dementia.
Troy felt she might have some trouble finding a publisher for her book, given what she perceived as low interest regarding the elderly as subjects of a novel. But she met an editor at a book fair and after they talked, Troy says she “knew that this book had found a home.” She revised the manuscript based on extensive feedback from the publisher and got the final word last spring that it would be published.
“The editing was very careful and loving,” Troy says, “but I had to tone down a lot of the language. These are tough, no-nonsense people. Many do manual labor or worked for the state, and they all came to know each other through bowling.”
Troy is traveling to Missoula this month to read from her new book at the Montana Festival of the Book. While in Montana, she will see her bowling friends, do a couple of book signings and give a radio interview. “This is really a celebration of these people for me,” Troy says.
She will give a reading at Southern on Nov. 10 with CSU Professor Vivian Shipley. Troy is also the author of another novel, Floating.