How does a Montana horseman and carpenter by trade write a first novel that is getting the kind of advance press garnered by Cold Mountain? To start with, Malcolm Brooks’s eighth-grade English teacher gave him a copy of Lonesome Dove for a graduation present. “It was the first adult literary novel I was aware of, and it literally changed the arc of my life.” He then read everything Larry McMurtry wrote and fell in love with tales about the American West. “I was 14 years old, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be, so I went through this long learning curve of mimicking whatever writer was my hero du jour.”

As a teenager, he actually wrote a first novel in the style of McMurtry, and in his 20s wrote another imitating the likes of Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison. Then he read All The Pretty Horses and The English Patient. “Right after that I thought, God, I should write an epic. I finally started to piece together all the various components of what became Painted Horses (Grove Press, Aug.).”

His first published novel is a sweeping tale tying together Catherine Lemay, a young archeologist charged with determining whether a 1950s dam project might destroy a potentially sacred canyon in Montana, and John H., a horseman and WWII vet who served in the last mounted cavalry campaign in Europe. Brooks serendipitously met a war veteran on a house-remodeling job, who told him he was involved in the last U.S. horse-mounted cavalry in WWII. “We invaded Sicily, and the terrain was so rough we couldn’t use mechanized vehicles, so we just reinvented the U.S. horse cavalry.”

That story stuck in his mind when he embarked on writing his epic. Says Brooks, “I knew I wanted to write about the American West, and I wanted to have the U.S. cavalry in there. And I’ve always been interested in archeology and the Basque experience in the American West. They carved symbols and names and dates into the bark of aspen trees, and that put me in mind of the painted caves in the Basque region in Europe, the Pleistocene cave art. I just threw all of these aspects into a blender to see how I could connect the dots, and wound up with this novel.”

Brooks remarks about being at BEA for the first time, “Mainly I feel very fortunate to take part in such a significant event in the book world, and pretty amazed that my own work led to it.” Brooks is signing galleys at the Grove booth (1321) today, 11 a.m., and in the Autograph Area on Saturday, 9:30 a.m.