BECAUSE I LIVE IN MONTANA and because I have always heard Montanans talk about Thomas McGuane, I set myself the task of reading all of his work: 10 novels, several books of essays, and three collections of short stories, including his new one, Crow Fair (Knopf). I now understand why the majority of Montanans claim him. McGuane’s body of literature is like a well-wrought symphony, with all the important parts of a tragicomic concerto, with an overture, crescendos, and requiems. And, taken together, it is almost magical to read the linguistic shifts in style from the psychedelic gonzo style of the ’70s to the meditative and spare tone of his more recent work. And throughout the chaos of his plots, and the chaos of his characters’ inner worlds, McGuane never, ever, loses his comic touch.
I think Montanans claim him in part because he captures the American West but not, as many believe, in the mythological sense of the pristine wild frontier with its macho cowboys or the idealized, romanticized American Indian. To be sure, McGuane pays tribute to the beauty of the west, the landscape, the glorious rivers, the horses, the cattle, and so on. But he does not pay tribute to the character that one would imagine matching the landscape, the rugged, adventure-prone, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type. On the contrary. McGuane cracks open the American West by creating male protagonists that have all the wrong attributes for surviving in the Old West. They are not the silent, gruff, macho type but rather the utterly neurotic, prone to self-destruction and perdition type, the men who bounce around in an America that offers little hope or promise for the future. In fact, very few McGuane characters undergo an earth-shattering positive transformation or epiphany, from which they pick up the pieces and move on to a fulfilling life. Most remain in a state of limbo and irresolution, some even face death. This, more than anything, is what I came to admire in McGuane’s work. He thwarts readers’ expectations. We are faced with strange, peculiar situations and characters. And there is rarely closure, but instead a feeling of just hanging on. Because life really isn’t about happy endings. It’s about eternal vacillation.
Since the millennium, McGuane’s fiction has the simplicity and grace of a well-told tale, a story that is sometimes tender, sometimes poignant, but almost always scathing and funny. Although his later works still retain the verbal playfulness that characterized his early novels, everything is more pared down, as if he were whittling away the distractions in order to tend to the heart. McGuane is keenly aware of the ethos of the Montana reader, or at least the Montana reader that he hopes to appeal to, the readers that he most prizes and the ones he works hardest for, those that he most interacts with, the ranch hands and cattle ranchers, the postal workers and veterinarians. McGuane, whose first novel was published almost fifty years ago, says he is interested in telling stories that his readers can grasp and that he can grasp. “I want to be clear,” he says, “And I don’t want to duck things.” Lucky for the ranch hand, but lucky for me as well.
His present desire to be clear, to tell a story with simplicity, reflects an evolution. Though I appreciated his dazzling early stuff, I am much more moved by his later work and, most especially, by stories in Crow Fair and Gallatin Canyon (2006). And although Ninety-two in the Shade remains McGuane’s most popular book (it was even revolutionary contraband in Fidel’s Cuba), I prefer Nothing but Blue Skies or Keep the Change because I prefer Joe Starling and Frank Copenhaver to Nicholas Payne or Paul Crusoe.
Most likely every McGuane reader has a favorite McGuane protagonist. McGuane himself exists on a spectrum that ranges from Captain Berserko (the nickname he was given by friends in the ’70s during his most tumultuous years) to Animal Man (Wallace Stegner characterized him as such) to Conservationist (he is well known in Montana for his efforts in preserving rivers and open land) to Family Man (these days, his happy self-descriptor), and he has created a literary catalog of the modern American man in search of meaning. The inner world of each male protagonist includes a wise range of emotions: envy, longing, tenderness, love, hate, self-loathing, addiction, sexual self-consciousness, desire, fantasy, shame, and much more.
McGuane’s male planet has been criticized as well, and certainly in his early work his women are flat, one-dimensional figures. But one could argue that, in a paradoxical way, McGuane has reversed preconceived gender notions, as his men — Frank Copenhaver, Thomas Skelton — reveal themselves to be hysterical boy-men, spinning out of control and falling apart. They are emotional wrecks. The women, generally, are solid rocks or therapists, upon which the male protagonists fling themselves.
But that too has changed. His fiction since 2000 — Driving on the Rim, Gallatin Canyon, and Crow Fair — although it still has some of the zany adventures of his earlier work (especially in Driving) has moved toward more contemplative, brooding narrative.
Thomas Francis McGuane III was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, in 1939. Despite this Midwestern origin, McGuane considers himself more like an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts rather than someone from the Midwest. His mother, he has said, would take him and his siblings, a brother and a sister, back east every summer. In fact, in several interviews he claims Michigan felt transient and Massachusetts like home. Even though he says he has always wanted to be a writer, at least since he was 10, it was in Massachusetts, at a summer writing class at Harvard, where he felt for the first time that he might be good at it.
McGuane graduated from Michigan State in 1962 and then went on to receive an MFA from Yale in 1965. He settled in Livingston, Montana, with his first wife, Rebecca Crockett, to raise their son, Thomas IV. Livingston became a “scene,” with people like Jim Harrison, Jeff Bridges, and Russell Chatham frequent visitors. From there, McGuane would fly to Hollywood to earn enough money screenwriting and working on films in order to return to Montana to write. It was, he says, “my circuit.” In a tumultuous 1976 and 1977, he and Crockett divorced, he married Margot Kidder, they divorced, and then he married Laurie Buffett. They have now been married for almost forty years.
McGuane is straightforward about the dysfunction in his own nuclear family. In the span of two and a half years, he lost his father, his mother, and then his sister. Alcoholism and drugs were responsible for all three, and he himself battled alcoholism until he swore it off in the early ’80s. His younger brother remains in custodial care. But today McGuane is a family man and is close to his four children and grandchildren. Together he and Laurie have made a ranching life in Montana, with horses and cows, fishing and reading. They also spend several months in Florida each year. He is content with his life. In part, as he tells me, it is because he still has so much to learn.
In 2010 McGuane was elected to the Academy of Arts & Letters. (Other writers inducted that year were Marilynne Robinson, Francine Prose, and Richard Powers.) He is also a four time cutting horse champion, received Montana’s Centennial Award for Literature, was nominated for the National Book Award, received the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, and has a list of Hollywood directing and writing credits.
I met McGuane for the first time at the “How It Happens” festival in Livingston, Montana, in June 2014. He read “Casserole,” from his new short story collection Crow Fair — a sharp, dark, and cynical story in the vein of his old work, where the male protagonist has no idea what is about to hit him. (His wife is leaving him.)
Although McGuane and Montana are sometimes synonymous, he remains a bit of an outsider. He bought his first ranch here with the advance from The Sporting Club in 1969, and though a rancher, fisher, and roper, he is still primarily a writer, which means he is first and foremost an observer, looking in. This suits him. In fact, when I ask him about his insider–outsider persona, his sense of humor emerges. In an email, he sends me a list of bills that the 2015 Montana legislature is trying to pass (Nutjob Bills in the Montana Legislature.) His subject line: “How any thinking person, native or otherwise, might feel like an outsider in MT.”
McGuane has always been attached to Florida, specifically Key West, and he has also always had a home there. It is in Florida, ironically, where I reach him to talk, by phone for hours, about him being a Montana writer, and his new book, and other things.
BRIDGET KEVANE: How is Florida?
THOMAS MCGUANE: This year has been different. We’ve [he and his wife, Laurie Buffett] been coming to Florida for 20 years and this year I just didn’t seem to be able to grasp being here. We’ve been here for six or seven weeks but for a month I was barely able to read or write. I was tearing my eyelashes out.
Are you at work on something new?
Well I have a contract for another novel but that is the only part of the novel that is in the works. It is like a Hollywood friend of mine once told me, “The only thing that is really interesting about Hollywood is the deal,” he said. “After that it’s all downhill.”
Well you did just publish a new book. You are about to go on tour for Crow Fair, your third collection of short stories. What was the inspiration behind some of the characters in this collection?
In my practice, I don’t ever really have an overview of the individuals before I start writing. But I’ll get a glimpse of something about them that I think leads somewhere, and I follow it. It doesn’t always work out, and it always means plenty of revision in the future. But the only way I can access either intuition or my subconscious, or even just things I remember, is if I finger paint a little bit.
I might pursue something as minuscule as a gesture, but then it often leads somewhere. I don’t think that is an unusual experience. For example, if you started to write a memoir or autobiography, you would start with a lead, a childhood memory or a conversation, but end up somewhere totally different. It may not lead to the truth but it leads you somewhere. Even Bill Clinton, who has said a lot of banal things in his life, said that it was an astonishing experience. He said that everyone should write a memoir because you have no idea where you will end up or what you will discover. Let’s say, as little as I know you, I know a few things, and if I were to put you in a story we would start out with that information but God only knows where we would end up!
Was writing Panama that kind of experience for you? You’ve said in different interviews that it was your most personal work. Were there surprises?
Yes. And it was so different than anything I would do now. It was a blistering experience not because the book didn’t do very well at the time but because it was painful. A lot of people, like Richard Ford, think it was my best book. I don’t really know if it is or isn’t but I do know that I wouldn’t want to go back to that book and reread with the right to revise. Because I would really tear everything up. I would find that very painful.
Do you still think of Panama as your best work?
Well it was so different than anything I would do now. You evolve. I mean, everybody does. My writing at this point in my life has a lot to do with where I have lived for the last 45 years. It would be hard for me to write something now that all the people I know couldn’t possibly understand. We have had a lot of people working for us on the ranch and I always try to get them to read. There is no sense in giving them The Sound and the Fury — it is so fragmented that I didn’t even know, until I finished graduate school, that the opening of the novel was about golf. I just didn’t know that. There is no sense in giving Faulkner’s novel to a ranch hand. But they will read Hilary Mantel, for example, because it is plausible to them, it makes sense.
I really notice how my writing has evolved when I am in New York around the Brooklyn set. They are so sophisticated and the things that interest them would not be of any interest to the people I know. Or even to me! So at this point in my life, I just want to write stories that readers can grasp and that I can grasp at this age. I want to be clear. I don’t want to duck things anymore, especially emotional or painful things that are difficult to write in the first place.
Well this collection doesn’t duck much. How long were you working on these stories?
I was working on them for a long time.
I was just listening to a podcast with Joyce Carol Oates talking about Flannery O’Connor and how O’Connor would spend six or eight months on a story. I can see how that would be possible. I certainly can’t dash them off. It is a little bit glacial these days. I just keep pushing along, and pushing along, trying to follow the shape that a story wants to have, and I act on that, both right and wrong. I always try to follow this rule that Henry James had which is that fiction only has one obligation and that is to be interesting. I follow that rule, at least in a first draft, and ask myself, is this interesting, is that? Is what I just said interesting, is that an interesting page?
So to answer your question, this collection took a long time. Sometimes it will take a winter to write a story. Sometimes they come pretty quickly. You just don’t know. I think as I get older my general faculties may have diminished, but my criteria as a writer have risen. I know more about writing and that slows me down.
Death, dementia, old-age homes, and aging seem to be a preoccupation in this collection. People in “God’s waiting room,” as one character says. Was this a conscious decision?
Well what is really frightening about what you ask is that it was unconscious! It must have to do with my looking around and seeing what the implications of aging are, which is a fearful thing to worry about. But also, about a year ago, I shattered my knee. I’ve always been so healthy, but I had to have surgery and physical therapy. And my physical therapist’s office in Big Timber is at the old-folks home, and it was so terrifying to go in there. There were a lot of patients just staring into the middle distance, a lot of patients with Alzheimer’s, and I thought, “Oh my God, does this happen to everybody? Let me out of here!” So yes, that was perhaps part of it.
You also have one short story, the only one in the collection, whose protagonist is a young boy. Tell me about “Hubcaps.”
This story was the most conscious thing that I did in the collection and stands as a real departure from my general practice. In this story I wrote about what it was like to be me as a kid. Because I grew up in a dysfunctional family, I have a lot of selective amnesia about growing up, and so I think one of the paths, one of the avenues, I feel, is to penetrate those walls and to see what is in there, on either end: childhood and, as you mention above, death.
Writing is psychotherapy in the sense that we all trundle along trying to figure out what our story is. The process is, to some degree, like a hall of mirrors. It is not an entirely objective thing where you are going to set out and write something for others to consume. You are actually struggling with yourself as you do this.
Speaking of dysfunction, or perhaps to offset dysfunction, stories like “Hubcaps” or the novel Driving on the Rim have characters that are important mentors to the protagonists. Does that come from a personal experience?
Yes, I think so. It was never by way of learning anything that I did thereafter, but I had mentors that were important to me. My father was sort of an obsessed workaholic so my interactions with him were pretty limited and I was always looking around for somebody who could do the job. One of my early mentors was this fascinating old guy who lived near us, an Arizona border patrolman. He had been shot by somebody who had a derringer on him, attached by a string, and when he arrested him this guy shot him. He still had the bullet in him. He was very indulgent of me and would tell me romantic stories.
Then probably even closer to a mentor to me was a quiet old bachelor who lived in this 19th-century derelict of a house that he inherited on the shores of Lake Erie. There was no heat, no water; there was no anything. He was an amateur scholar and historian, a reader, kind of an intellectual. And he was very fond of young people, and we all felt we could stop in and see him and talk about the Indians and about books.
But my most important mentor was Gerald Chapman, my writing teacher at Harvard summer school. As a very young guy, I had wanted to be a writer, but all my teachers up until that point considered it delusional. And I flunked out of University of Michigan. But then, still in my late teens, I decided, out of the blue, to go to Harvard summer school as a non-matriculating student. I took the Advanced Creative Writing course. I was in there with all these really advanced, smart kids from music and arts and New York. I was terrified! And Chapman thought I was a great writer. It was dead luck! I poured stories at him in this state of panic and one day he had me into his office and he said to me, “You know, you are the real deal. If you are serious about writing, then you are right to be serious about it.”
He was the first teacher I ever had who thought I was good at anything. It was so shocking. I’ve even seen him since.
Do you still write in that state of panic?
I think you always have insecurity. I wouldn’t say panic, but fear is certainly a part of it. I always try to remember what John Updike once said about the reviews, that they are inexorably mixed. If you publish a book and 25 people review it, then you can be sure that at least five of them are going to be personal attacks. And you have to get used to that. But it does reinforce the fear.
Back to “Hubcaps,” and other stories. Families in your fictional world are usually made up of a single child. Why is that?
This is really an interesting point because I have been thinking of writing another story with family origins. And I kept thinking of the dynamic point of view of the three of us siblings. I think of what my sister might have thought, what my brother might have thought, what I might have thought. And then I thought, let’s make a fourth character here that’s not any of the three of us but — and this is selective — who has many of the responses and feelings that each of us might have had. When I think about that — I think well, what would that person be like? Maybe that person is schizophrenic or whatever. For example, in “Hubcaps” there are things that are really my brother’s responses and not mine. It has to do with adapting it to whatever the requirements of the story are rather than what you think the requirements of autobiography are.
What do you see as the principal vein in “Motherlode”? Another single young man caught at a crossroads?
The underpinning of this story is of someone soaking up the news. Living in Sweet Grass County, we are kind of the edge of what has been impacted by the energy boom to the east of us. You see these peculiar superimpositions, represented by the protagonist in that story. Somebody who is this modern Montana kid, but whose feet are still in the agricultural world. One of the things at the back of my mind was a guy who was from one of the big ranching families in Big Timber. He was one of the ringleaders for a big meth ring that was broken up by the FBI. When I heard about this I thought about how it reflects these real changes that are rippling towards us from the energy sector. I think of the energy industry as being kind of diabolical anyway, with these sort of Dick Cheney–like figures festooned around the landscape, so I asked myself, what happens when you have a kid who has this blue-collar background, has maybe smoked a little pot, doesn’t really know what he is doing, and is lured by the kind of situation, drugs or get-rich-quick, that is so plausible today? What happens when this kind of kid, a type I know really well from Livingston, makes something of himself but then falls astray into something much more dangerous, something very plausible in today’s Montana?
“Motherlode” has both an intruder and, as you say, something more intangible yet corrupt encroaching upon the protagonist. In fact, several of your stories have these intruders.
There is something personal, kind of electrifying about intruders. One night Laurie and I were sound asleep, and at about 3:00 a.m. I heard two men talking in our kitchen. I grabbed my bird-hunting shotgun and slipped around to the kitchen and said, “Whoever you are, you better say something quick.” It turned out to be two guys that I knew who thought I was away, the bars had closed, and they said, “McGuane will have some.” But there was that suspended moment where you hear two voices in your home and it is creepy. I won’t forget how it made me feel.
Anyway, before we move on, let me tell you this funny thing that happened to me. James Patterson, the bestseller author, was made editor of a best mystery anthology for 2015. So I just got this note from my agent saying that he had selected one of my stories for the anthology, so I said, “Which one?” and he said, “I don’t know.” So I told my publisher, Gabrielle Brooks, “Hey, one of my stories was picked for the best mystery anthology. I didn’t know I was a mystery writer.” She said, “Go back. Was there mystery meat in the casserole [referring to the story “The Casserole”]?”
And he picked “Motherlode”?
Yes! This is the second story that they picked for that anthology. Another one was picked a couple of years ago. I asked Deborah Treisman [The New Yorker fiction editor], “Am I missing something? Are these mystery stories?!” The real mystery is why they pick my stories!
So about the intruding force or the intruder that forever changes the character —
Yes but the intruder is not always an outside force or a stranger. It can also be an unexpected side to a person you think you know well. The intruder turns out to be a trait in someone that you did not previously see. It’s an idea that I could do something more with, the idea of zygotes. To some degree, whether it is something slight or something large, everyone has something in them that they hide. Each one of these secrets can become a zygote.
You’ve been criticized for your one-dimensional portrayal of female characters, and praised for capturing the male macho cowboy type. But the male protagonists are kind of fragile and emotional whereas the women are stoic and distant.
I agree with you. Most reviewers and critics key off something they know about the writer. And if they know the writer — for example, that I live in Montana and fool around with horses — well then naturally everything he says speaks to these macho convictions. Throughout my career I have received so many letters from people who have told me that my novels were not what they expected. By and large the male protagonists of my books have been exceedingly faulty characters. To me, the idea that they are compared to Hemingway’s heroes or something similar is so far afield that it is hard for me to even imagine that somebody could think that.
In this collection there are several strong female protagonists. Can you talk about that?
I think I live in the age of rising women. One of the results of a culture of rising women, one of its illuminations, is exposing the fissures in male culture. I’m a conventional, heterosexual sportsman, but I think that most of the problems that we have in the country are because not enough women are in places of power, starting in Congress. If there were sweeping changes, we might get some crazy stuff, some right-wing women. But I think if we made it a change based on population, on our demographics, if we changed Congress and corporations to reflect our population, I think the whole country would change for the better, the world would change for the better. I don’t know what we would do about the Putins! But I do think that it is changing, and although not fast enough, to the degree that it is changing, it is really lighting up what is wrong with what men have been doing for so long.
Let’s talk about Jessica in “Stars.”
Jessica has been a lightning rod for some of the things I hear from people. A lot of women have let me know that they have thought she is just a bitch on wheels, and so why write about her. But other women — for example, one of the strongest women I know, Meredith Brokaw, Tom Brokaw’s wife, just fell head over heels in love with the story and wrote me a long letter about her. I find her a very significant character, who lets herself down by not saving the wolf, because of the polite and conciliatory side of her nature, and, by so doing, she loses her self-respect. After that, she is either getting to the point, or almost to the point, where she is going to quit being that nice girl all the time. When she doesn’t save the wolf she tells herself, “Enough.”
Mary Elizabeth, in turn, in “Prairie Girl,” is strong from start to finish. She knows what she wants, she goes after it. Tell me about the context for her story.
When I first lived in Livingston there was a flourishing whorehouse. There was even a taxi service from Bozeman that specialized in delivering customers. Livingston is such a small town that you got to know not only the madam, but also the girls that worked in the whorehouse. And they were not at all what you’d expect. I mean, some were real pros, but a significant number were Montana country schoolteachers that worked at the brothel during the summer. One that I knew was an independent girl, very much like the heroine of the story, who was going to be a prostitute for as long as it took her to make enough money to put a down payment on a ranch, and then she was going to quit and be a cowgirl. I remember I thought, whoa. It is like when you go to Cuba and so many women are hookers. They make more than doctors and lawyers in Havana. How are you going to stop them?
In any case, these women were part of the community. I remember when the brothel closed and they listed it with a realtor and the ad said something like “Home on the Yellowstone River. No kitchen, four baths, 15 bedrooms. Changing times force sale.”
Since you mentioned Cuba, tell me about your connection to the island.
I was conceived in Cuba! My mother told me that late in life. Of course my face turned red because I thought she was a virgin! But when I was living in Key West I met, at different times, these Cuban refugees who were young writers, and they would all tell me that they had smuggled copies of Ninety-two in the Shade, which they had read. They are very aware of their proximity to Key West, they can practically swim it, and so any Key West–centric literature would be something they would know.
But also in 1978, we semi-legally sailed into Cuba. It was some kind of rapprochement that lasted about three days, where they were going to have a little sailboat race, so I abruptly signed up for this race, and we got caught up in a northwest gale and we all nearly drowned. We sailed into Mariel Harbor, tied up, and then we were free to do as we wanted and we just wandered around Cuba. And we were so beautifully treated. I should say most people treated us very well — there were also these convinced communists who saw us as agents of Satan.
I’ve always read a lot about Cuba, always been really interested in it. I’m interested in what it’s like now, before it opens up to most Americans. Opening it up might just change it for the worse fast.
In fact, I’m going there again in May, but when I was there last year there were already all sorts of nationals from all sorts of other countries — I mean there’s a direct flight from Sydney, Australia — and there are all sorts of people wandering around and looking for an angle before it opens up to America. I was talking to this Cuban woman in the north coast and I asked her, “Do you think when this place really opens up to the United States it is going to ruin Cuba?” And she said, “Sure, why not?”
The thing that is funny about Cuba — and like in Russia — is that one of the things that happens to people who live like this is that they are happy to just assume they will be taken care of. It was like that near the Navy base I grew up next to. Everyone had all this stuff they had purloined from the Navy. They had clothes, they had tires for their cars, all sorts of things. The Navy is such a big institution that they didn’t care if you just carried stuff off. That is the way for a lot of Russians too — they tried to give people these farms and nobody wanted them, too much trouble. Russia had been running things and it was easier to just be given the necessities. In Cuba, which has the highest divorce rate in the world, you have this situation where everybody has healthcare, everybody has an education, everybody is going to sleep under a roof, and there is a lot of hanky-panky, people have a lot of time on their hands. And there is a security there.
One thing that might happen might be similar to what happened in Ireland, the so-called Celtic Tiger, where you had a large population of well-educated poor people and so all these companies went there, from Microsoft to Viagra, to manufacture things because well-educated people needed jobs. That’s what caused the economic boom in Ireland. But of course — and I can tell you this, because I’m Irish — we found ways to screw it up! But the Cubans, it is unbelievable how well educated everybody is. More generally literate than the Americans.
If after fifty years of running Cuba, the only successor Fidel could find was his fairly dim-witted brother, I mean that is not the most democratic situation. Fidel’s regime did a lot of good for a lot of people but he wasn’t the god that people made him out to be. Like idolizing Che Guevara — Che loved to just execute people with his pistol.
There are still all these Viva la Revolución slogans but most Cubans I talk to are utterly sick of the regime.
One of the things that I want to do before my gray cells turn into white cells is have a writing workshop with these young writers in Havana. I want to give them a sense of the larger world in literature. I have been chairman of the National Book Award and have done all these things that are part of the outer world of literature, and I want to give these young Cuban writers a sense of these things. There are tons of good young writers that are locked into their situation. And while I am still able to pass it along, some of the things that I’ve learned in my almost half-century career, I would love to help people who are looking at the prospects of a very steep climb and spend time with them.
About five or six of the stories in your new collection appeared in The New Yorker first. You’ve worked well with Deborah Treisman.
I have worked with her since before Gallatin Canyon. She’s by now the longest editorial relationship I’ve had. I just kind of love Deborah! There is just something so level about her. She does everything just by being smart. She is not conflict-oriented. She is actually kind of shy. And she is terribly smart. And although she has grown up in this intellectual world, she is not remote and doesn’t act like an intellectual. She has a very sure hand about editing, and is extremely learned.
And there are all these anomalies about Deborah. Her husband is a motorcycle racer and is in a rock ’n’ roll band. They have this very happy marriage, two brilliant daughters, the whole thing is such an unlikely package.
So they complement each other. Does Laurie read as much as you?
More! But she doesn’t like to talk about it. And that’s the same as Deborah. She spends all day talking about writing. When she goes home that is not the dinner table talk. He builds these motorcycles and they talk about that!
I will see her next week at the office of The New Yorker, which is now in the World Trade Center. I can’t even picture it there. I always associate The New Yorker with these kind of messy, funky offices with neurotics in every little carrel.
You once said that the principal element to a novel is energy and movement forward. How is that element different in the short story?
There used to be a definition of the novel that it was a document of a certain length and that there was something wrong with it. I would say the difference, really, is that the short story is much less tolerant of things being wrong with it. An extreme case would be a play. If you have a play that is an hour and a half, for example, and in the middle of the play there are 10 minutes, only a 10th of it, that are awfully dull, it would ruin the entire play. Novels, even great novels, are full of these boring moments. Moments where nothing happens, where it is just treading water, where it goes off in the wrong direction, and so on. Somehow it can recover.
But a short story can’t recover from that. There are plenty of examples of novels with huge mistakes, like Huckleberry Finn. It has the stupidest ending in the world, but it’s a great book. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoers, great book, stupid ending.
Endings are hard!
They are not only hard, but for some reason writers are often tempted to go off the rails at the end. It’s this insecurity, this sense of panic — I didn’t get done what I was trying to get done, so let me make this panicked effort at the end. I didn’t get done what I was trying to get done so let me just end this way …
It is like the old New Yorker stories. Writers felt obliged to end on this peculiar enigma. You would have this powerful story of some married couple and the end of the story is, “He suddenly noticed a gum wrapper in the alley. The end.”
Tell me about your time in Hollywood. What did you learn about your time in Hollywood, screenwriting, directing? What was it like for you and why did you leave?
When I was working there it was the ’70s. It was like a frontier town in terms of making movies. Movies got made much more instinctually than they do now, there was much less calculation and analysis of audiences and things like that. It was like the O.K. Corral out there. It was really kind of exciting to be in that milieu and working. My routine was to write for as long as it took me to go broke, and then race out to California to try and get a movie job and then take the loop back to Livingston and keep writing until I ran out again. That was my routine and I remember having to do that year after year after year. Working on things that never got made, fixing scripts, and other things like that.
But gradually that changed and, to me, at least, it was not an interesting place to work anymore. More importantly, my commitment was always to writing fiction. That has always been so. So the fact that I could finally make a living at it and didn’t have to go back and forth to Los Angeles was probably the real desideratum there. I didn’t fall out of love or say goodbye to Hollywood really. It’s just that I was able to do what I really wanted to do in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before.
And I didn’t want to teach. I taught at Berkeley one year, but I didn’t want to teach full-time because I liked it so much I was afraid I’d never write. I couldn’t imagine teaching all day long and then having any interest at all in my own writing when I got home that night.
You have been passionate about writing since you were 10. What does it offer you?
First of all, I wish I knew. It is, for some reason, where everything seems to come together in my life. All my enthusiasms, all my conflicts, and all my regrets. It seems to be a place where I can go to work and use my energy to make something out of all the things that have happened to me, all the things that I think, and as a result, it has had this narcotic-like effect on me. Which is to say that when it goes well, I am never happier.
But the narcotic model also has a sinister side, because you spend a lot of time wandering around darkened streets trying to score. There is a huge amount of time where you just can’t seem to get anywhere, just nothing happens. Like I already told you, I had one of those spells this winter. And I have experienced this year after year. And then, when you finally get going and get something written, you wonder, why in God’s name did I have to suffer so much to get to this point? Because when you are there, in the working zone, you are so happy! But there is some kind of impediment to getting there. I don’t know exactly what it is. I remember hearing B.B. King speaking in Berkeley, of all places, and he said that you wander around bumping into walls until this swelling feeling inside of you lets you know that you are ready to do some creative work. You don’t know where it comes from, but you know it is ready to happen.
I’ve written a good bit of nonfiction and, in fact, have been doing more of that lately. And I recognize that it has hits here and there, but that sense of creative absorption, of freedom, analogous to painting, that you have when you are writing fiction, is not there. The feeling I get when writing fiction is unapproachable in any other way. It is kind of a gift. I notice that whenever I read about some poor old writer who has gotten sick, they just want to do some more writing. They want to get as much in as they can. Oliver Sacks wrote as much recently when he found out he was going to die from cancer.
You dedicate this collection to Barry Hannah.
I met him while giving a reading at the University of Mississippi and he came over and introduced himself. He was just a remarkably original writer and then he spent a year in Missoula. He was kind of crazy.
Well so were you.
Well I was having more fun than the law allows, but he was delusional. He was really crazy.
In “Weight Watchers,” the protagonist says that he has not had the happiest childhood but has no complaints. Despite your rocky relationship with your parents, were there positive things?
My parents were not really terribly interesting people. Whatever their life conflicts, they seemed to increase or become magnified in the latter part of my childhood. My father was a very hardworking guy but also a real alcoholic. It had a deteriorating effect on everything. In part, it had to do with the fact that he was a Depression-era kid, an overachiever, who went to Harvard on an athletic scholarship. Coming from a poor Irish Catholic family, he was kind of relegated to the other despised people in the school, that included other poor boys and Jews. Now, one of the interesting things about that is that my father, who went on to become a successful businessman, never had any partners that were not Jews. He didn’t trust anyone else. That was the good side of him. In the latter part of his life, when he retired, he was living a kind of lonely life and he had this one close friend, a Mexican illegal who worked at Ford Motor Company. Johnny Escaramillo. Here is this old Harvard athlete with this little Mexican guy. He was basically an outcast in so many ways, but he was a man with an English literature degree from Harvard.
My mother went to a small college called Regis and was a book nut. She was chief editor at her college newspaper. They were both readers. There were always a lot of books in our house and that was a positive thing. My mother was really alert to writing. One of the reasons that I was a Saul Bellow fan as a kid was that my mother wrote to Saul Bellow and he wrote her back! I was so mind-blown that a famous writer would actually reply to my mother that I became a lifelong Saul Bellow fan. And actually he liked my work later so that was like full circle.
So the positives were that it was a very creative, very witty, kind of acerbically witty, household. People said a lot of sharp things. Everybody read books and that was a big plus.
What about the storytelling and comic timing? Your comic timing is impeccable in your stories.
I think that is one of the famous things about Irish Catholic households — there is a lot of banter. But above all, there is an interest in brevity. The way you could really turn everybody off was by going on too long. I was telling somebody the other day that I thought we should introduce the NBA shot clock to American literature.
In “A Long View to the West,” you have that story-listener relationship.
Well, in the end, the overview is that his impatience, the son’s impatience, doesn’t really redound very well on him. I mean, I grew up in a family that was always saying “chop, chop.”
But your father wasn’t interested in the Irish; in his mistrust he chose to stick with other immigrants.
Very much of an outsider. He was really friendless in general. I remember going to his funeral and there were only about two people there. His mother was a very unpleasant person, I met her a few times as a young boy, and she always forced him to do things that he didn’t really want to do. Take piano lessons, become an Eagle Scout, get a scholarship from Harvard. So if you can picture a man who was an alcoholic and who, in 45 years, never missed a half a day of work, then you get the idea of the bitter drive he had in life. So while he had the pleasures of success for a long time, he was just another depressed conservative suit.
And in “Weight Watchers,” the suit appears.
But the only part of that is that my father would come to Montana and he thought the whole thing was a sham. He thought, who are these people. This is the way people live after the “real” people do all the work, so a bunch of clowns can live in Montana.
Do you still feel like an outsider in Montana?
I don’t think I’d ever assimilate entirely. You know, in Sweet Grass County you only need to be a Democrat to feel like an outsider! You might just as well be a mollusk! You have to do some negotiating, probably like everyone in their life. You have a lot of people that you like, and they like you, and you don’t hammer the subjects that you are not going to agree about. I am definitely a left of center person in terms of my social political convictions. But I’d probably be more annoyed in Bozeman than in Sweet Grass County. I said to somebody that Bozeman is the only place in Montana where soccer moms would give you the finger. It is clearly the coolest town in the west, but there is a kind of liberal complacency that even a liberal like me is not comfortable with. You get the sense that nobody is being sufficiently challenged.
I wanted to ask you about your decade of silence, at least in terms of writing fiction, in the 1990s. You mostly wrote essays — what was going on?
Boy, I wish I knew. I probably just didn’t have any ideas or something. Probably the biggest impediment to my writing career is my distaste for being indoors. When I was elected to the American Academy I made a couple trips back there and I felt more isolated and more alienated than I ever would in Miles City, Montana, because I thought: I really don’t want to spend my life with these woolly-headed frowning intellectuals who never seem to get out of the house. So just trying to titrate, but I also just like to go out and do stuff. I am not comfortable with people who don’t enjoy the outdoors.
Well but you don’t just enjoy the outdoors, you master it. Cutting horse champion, fly fisherman, and so on.
I like learning things. I had this girlfriend, briefly, when I was out in California, Gwen Welles. She got cancer and a friend of hers made a documentary. She was a fabulous person. The thing she found most difficult to absorb, as she got closer to death, was the disconnect between her impending death and the fact that she still had so much to learn. She kept saying, how can this be, I’m still learning!
It doesn’t have to be anything big, but I think most of us want to be learning all the time. My learning is formalized into things that I like doing anyway. I like to fish, I like the challenge of being on the river and seeing if I can get a bite. That component — the risks and challenges of the natural world — is a big motivator in my non-literary life. And I think that was one of the things that compelled me into short story writing. One was that I had this sympathetic person that I’d been working with, Deborah, whom I can learn from, but the other thing was that I realized that there are a lot of things about writing that you don’t learn writing novels. In some cases the short story imposes the conditions that come closest to lyric poetry where the formal demands, that type of narrative efficiency, is the only thing that can make one lift off and fly instead of taxiing continuously like novels often do. That has been a real learning experience for me and I am far from getting to the bottom of it, of how it all works. And old as I am, that might be all I ever do anymore, is write short stories.
I’d also say that as a writer, you are always in this psychological or cultural milieu, and there is definitely something going on with the short story in America. I’ll be participating in the Key West Literary Seminar next year, a conference that has had Nobel Prize winners and all that sort of stuff and that has existed for at least thirty years and is a big deal. But next year the theme is the short story. Apparently, when they announced the short story seminar for 2016, it sold out in about 70 hours.
I think one of the reasons is that short stories are fundamentally interested in literature and in contributing to literature. They aren’t trying to have movie sales. They aren’t trying to get to The New York Times Best Seller list. They are written by people who love literature intrinsically. And apparently a lot of readers feel that way. And it is also characteristically our American form.
You did say recently that the short story is where it is happening.
I think it is, but mostly here. My French publisher feels a bit differently. She has published 10 of my books, and she is worried because she says you can’t really sell the short story to the French. They are just not interested. But there are writers like
Joshua Ferris, Mary Gaitskill, Tom Drury, Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, David Means, Nell Freudenberger, Toby Wolff. I mean there are so many and they are all really, really good. And there are lots of dead ones too!
Your epigraph in Crow Fair is from a Russian poet and it kind of is a coda to your critics, even to your readers.
Yes, because it is a kind of rebellious stance: You can all eat me up, I’m just watching your behavior. It is like the advice we are given in the Bible: Just watch and listen.