Monday, December 7, 2015

'Lilian's Last Dance' author traces novel's development, "at sea" connection

Above, Christene Meyers reads to fellow travelers on aboard Celebrity's Millennium, one of a half-dozen readings delivered on ships.  The following story first appeared in a respected Rocky Mountain newspaper, The Billings Outpost. It was picked up by the Last Best News, a nationally known on-line publication edited by award-winning writer Ed Kemmick featuring Montana news and personalities. 







Bay Area writer and editor Kathleen Mohn introduces
Christene Meyers at a reading in Oakland.  Meyers is
on an international tour for the novel. She read in Europe
this fall and will travel to the Far East for readings in March.   
AFTER 40 years in journalism, Christene Meyers decided to start making things up.
The result is her first novel, “Lilian’s Last Dance,” which she introduced to readers here as part of Big Read events in Billings. Writing the book was, she said in an interview, the hardest thing she has ever done.
More of Meyers' writings at

Meyers’ fluid writing style is well known to longtime Billings residents. A native of Columbus, she got her first byline in a children’s magazine when she was 14 years old. In high school, she contributed to a Billings (Montana) Gazette column that featured voices of area teenagers.
chirssybookThat eventually led to a full-time job at the Gazette, where she started as a night police reporter, while going to college -- both Rocky Mountain College and the now Montana State University Billings.
“I did all the major beats the paper had at the time,” she said.
She gradually worked her way up to movie reviews, then she was for many years the arts and travel writer for the Gazette before retiring in 2004.
She interviewed hundreds of internationally known actors, musicians and writers, and was active in many ways in the Billings arts community.
For a fourth-generation Montanan from Columbus, the career choice was not as unusual as it might sound. Her parents gave their children music and dance lessons, plus boxing lessons for the boys so they could handle any kidding they got at school about it all.
Her mother was an opera fan and musician, and Meyers said she began singing at age 2 or 3, belting out songs like “The Good Ship Lollipop” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” At last week’s reading, she sat down at a piano to play a medley of original songs for a musical version of “Lilian’s Last Dance,” with Marian Booth Green providing the vocals.
In later years, that love of culture translated into an inextinguishable urge to travel, a habit that paid off when it came time to take up fiction. The novel covers settings ranging from France to New York to California, with stops at most points in between, including a reference to Corsicana, Texas, a few miles from where this reporter’s ancestors grew up, and, of course, her native Montana.
Meyers and William Jones spent
many years researching the novel.
“Our research was meticulous,” she said.
Meyers visited all those spots with her late husband, William Jones, who was a retired, well knkown film critic for the Arizona Republic before his death of cancer in 2005.
“He went to that great theater in the sky,” she said. But right up until days before he died, sitting with an IV at a computer, he urged Meyers to finish the novel. They had put in too much work to give it up, he told her.
He is listed as co-author of the novel, and Meyers said it was a true collaboration. They worked out the characters and plot together, she said, and there really is no way to tell now who gets credit for what parts.
Meyers' grandma,
Olive Nystul,
inspired the
character Lilian.
Actually, the book’s roots go back even further. Meyers drew inspiration in part from a great aunt and from her grandmother, who refused to marry her grandfather until he came up with $1,500—a huge sum in those days—and a grand piano.
Meyers said she and her first husband, Bruce Meyers, a poet and professor at Montana State University Billings until his death in 1992, began kicking around the idea of writing a musical about a Western woman sharpshooter, sort of “Annie Get Your Gun” but with a main character who was more worldly, more international and sexier than Annie Oakley.
She and Jones took extensive notes on the novel, but she abandoned it for a time after her husband’s death. She resumed the book after a box of notes and floppy discs literally fell off an attic shelf and hit her current partner, photographer Bruce William Keller, in the head.
 Christene Meyers and her partner Bruce Keller
in the Hollywood Hills during the final days
of research for the novel.
The finished novel is set around the turn of the last century, extending into World War I. It’s about an ambitious British-born film buff in the silent era, Walter Brown, who travels America showing short films and putting on vaudeville acts, trying to stay a step ahead of goons working for inventor Thomas Edison, who was attempting to squeeze out competitors in the motion picture business.
Walter meets the lovely title character, a French woman named Lilian Dumont, and recruits her from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show as an actress and sharpshooter. With the rest of Walter’s crew, they travel America and Europe, entertaining crowds with shooting and films, and gradually moving toward more ambitious work in early-day Hollywood.
Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein are
cameo characters in the novel, interacting
with the fictional characters.

Along the way they encounter bank robbers, gunfighters, journalists, lawmen, a Peruvian artist and dozens of other characters, including 22 cameo appearances by famous personages of the time: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Bat Masterson, Lillian Gish and Buffalo Bill himself, among others. They bump into a range of disasters, including time on the front lines in World War I.
It’s a picaresque tale for most of the way, and the detail may weary some readers, but eventually a love triangle develops—really more of a quadrangle. One of the characters is motivated more by revenge than by affection.
From there the story gradually builds toward a rollicking climax, which won’t be revealed here except to note that guns blaze.
Meyers' readings appear to delight listeners, and it may be that the book works better as a series of anecdotes than as a tightly plotted novel.  
Besides the book tour and classes, Meyers is taking courses at Sarah Lawrence in poetry and play writing. She writes a blog at She is working on the musical version of "Lilian's Last Dance," and splits her time between California and a Montana place she bought near Nye. She still travels the world and attends the theater regularly. And she gives Writer's Voice workshops, inviting students to bring photos of ancestors. Her classes include exercises to encourage participants to trust one another.
It’s just, she said, that she has a lot she wants to do "before I’m in my urn.”
She even still does a little freelancing, she said, but is finding that she has to cut back.
“I’m learning one small thing in my 60s,” she said, “that I can’t do everything.”
For information on purchasing “Lilian’s Last Dance,” go to
Writer and editor David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available free all over Billings and in nearby communities.
The Last Best News is an independent online news site focusing on the culture, people and places of Billings and Eastern Montana. Its founder, Ed Kemmick began his newspaper career in 1980.  “The Big Sky, By and By,” is his collection of journalism, essays and a short story.