NOVEMBER 3, 2016
JIM HARRISON, a writer who, according to the London Sunday Times, had “immortality in him,” died at the age of 79 on March 26, 2016.
Two months earlier, on Valentine’s Day, just about spring in Southern Arizona, I pulled into the poet’s driveway outside the tiny border town of Patagonia. The cholla cacti were showing their spikes, bare of those pretty red and yellow blooms that pop out in April and stay through the summer months. At night, temperatures ducked down to near freezing, and just off old State Route 82, drops of early morning dew hung from a concrete historical marker in honor of Camp Crittenden — established in 1867, the fort was abandoned shy of five years later, after its commander was killed in a skirmish with Cochise’s Apache. Things come and go. By the time of Harrison’s death, the grasslands beyond the sign would be dotted with migratory birds, up from Mexico: rare gray hawks gliding about, colorful warblers in the oak canopies, vermillion flycatchers on branches.
The below interview is, I think, Harrison’s last. He had recently published his 14th volume of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, and his 21st book of fiction, The Ancient Minstrel, adding to an already prodigious and celebrated literary career, which had, over the years, earned him comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway. His first book of poems, Plain Song, published in 1965, when Harrison was 28; his first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir, debuted six years later. But his greatest commercial success came in 1979, with a trilogy of novellas collectively called Legends of the Fall — which was further popularized 15 years later, in 1994, by Edward Zwick’s Hollywood rendition, starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. The movie helped to make Harrison’s a household name, and the screenplay made him rich.
My introduction was True North, his 2004 novel about a Michigan timber tycoon’s son who is haunted by his family’s prestige and wealth, which came at the destruction of the Upper Peninsula’s vast old growth forests. It’s classic Harrison — the Midwest and the working class, a boy, his dad, nature, death and reconciliation and forgiveness — like a 300-page Springsteen song. And, much like the Boss, it was Harrison himself, the man as much as his pen, that captivated his fans, myself included. While other writers hunkered down at day jobs and encouraged you to do the same, Harrison — who walked away from an academic post at Stony Brook while still in his 20s — stood as living proof that you could maybe just be yourself, work really hard at your craft, and get away with it. Moreover, he somehow made being a writer — the so-called writerly life — seem not only possible but adventurous, luxurious: you could be a destitute beat poet from relative poverty, from Michigan, and still end up in a $900 room on the Champs-Élysées, then follow it with a $10,000 meal in the company of Orson Welles, make the guy pay for it, and stay friends. Harrison lived big. Appetite trailed him like a cape. (He once took on a 37-course meal, survived, and wrote it up for The New Yorker; and he chronicled other Dionysian escapades as a self-proclaimed “roving gourmand” in columns at Esquire and Men’s Journal — all of which have been anthologized into the canonical foodie tome, The Raw and the Cooked, published in 1992.) He inspired profiles from, and interviews with, adoring writers in The Atlantic, GQ, Angler’s Journal, Esquire, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Wine Spectator, Food and Wine, The Paris Review, and countless smaller publications. The University Press of Mississippi published a 276-page book called Conversations with Jim Harrison. Bourdain featured him in episodes of both Parts Unknown and No Reservations. Tom Bissell, in Outside magazine, credited Harrison for the courage to quit his own teaching gig and, as the elder writer advised, “stay outside.” “I’ve followed him more than I would follow the Bible or Koran!” Mario Batali wrote in Time. (It’s worth pointing out, I think, that all but one of the above pieces were written by men.)
So Jim Harrison created interesting art and left a lasting mark on the world; his work has been translated into more than two dozen languages. Like some kind of archetypal dream dad, he modeled a life without compromise, take what you need and get what you want … But how? At what cost? While I find this person and his project — the earnest man in pursuit of his desires, the uncompromising artist, the Great American Novelist — incredibly seductive, I am also skeptical. I’m suspicious of our tendency as readers to grant great writers permissions, to enable them. It’s problematic to separate real life from what they write — and it’s problematic not to. And with regard to Harrison specifically, I wanted to uncover how and where his personal story met his fictions. I also simply wanted to meet him before I couldn’t.
I heard him first: a unique voice, high and nasally, through the arched window of his small Arizona casita. I’d expected a different sound. The man Terry McDonell remembered as “Mozart of the Prairie,” known to his formidable French readership as the “Last of the Giants,” was all but whining. “Joyyyyyyce,” he cried to his assistant, Joyce Bahle, above the hum of my truck and the buzz of spring bees in the cottonwoods near the creek behind the house. “You must be Peter,” Bahle said, gesturing for me to enter.
Bahle, whom Harrison occasionally called his “secretary,” is an adopted Midwesterner. She was born in the suburbs of New York City, but spent much of the last 37 years nearby Harrison — in Arizona, at his house in Montana, and, before he sold it, at his place in Michigan, a state she now calls home. She says “you know” a lot and is friends with Garrison Keillor on Facebook. With a stenographer’s skill and patience, she has transcribed all her boss’s writing, from award-winning fiction to emails, because of his refusal to use a computer. “I think it would be interesting,” she told me later over the phone, “for somebody to do a big profile on Jim and I.”
“Taking care of him is a massive life,” she explained. His wife of 55 years, Linda, had died unexpectedly in October 2015. He was in mourning, and still recovering from a brutal spinal surgery that, judging by the scar, nearly split his back in half. “His world is a little tighter at the moment, with Linda being gone,” Bahle said. “She took care of him.”
“Otherwise,” Bahle continued, “you don’t get a writer who can produce this kind of work — I mean, Jim didn’t have anything to think about except put pen to paper. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. But Jim didn’t have to think about what dinner’s going on, who’s going to the grocery store, who’s paying the bills, who’s feeding his daughters. He set his life up that way. He didn’t have to think about a computer, a typewriter, anything. He just carries his pen — he’s constantly noodling with words and ideas. He has had that freedom.”
Folly, Harrison’s little black spaniel, hung around his place with a blue Kong chew toy, while the writer sat shirtless over Bahle’s home cooked breakfast at the head of a long pine table. Eggs, bacon, sourdough toast — food dribbled down his chin into his beard. “You like a mister,” he said to the dog. “She thinks that all people who come here come here to see her.”
I’d come out from Los Angeles, having asked Harrison, via emails with Bahle, if we might spend some time bird-watching around his property. He loved birds, and they show up often in his writing, as in the final lines of the poem, “Brutish”: “I’ve chosen birds and fish, the creatures / whose logic I wish to learn and live.” But when Harrison found out that my girlfriend worked in Hollywood, his attention turned away from animals, and he requested that I have her send a photo of Alicia Vikander. “I’ve reached a state in my life when I don’t need any more attractive women,” he explained. “But suddenly in The New York Times — there was a picture of her, an actress I’d never seen before. Impossibly good looking.”
I was similarly distracted by Harrison’s appearance. His presence somehow challenged its audience to realize that beauty and grace are real and embodied, and have nothing to do with looks or fashion or table manners. He appeared to be super-real, a body in hi-def, detailed like that daguerreotype of Geronimo, with skin pocks and nooks and folds all over, forehead creases deep enough to actually envelop serious darkness, owlish eyebrows, Einstein hair, a magnifying glass gaze, his much mythologized lazy eye — its distracting movements and the origin story he loved to tell about how, when he was seven, a girl slowly pushed a glass shard into his socket and ruined the ball. His head was a singular specimen. Bissell compared it to “the end of something a Viking would use to knock down a medieval Danish gate” — an accurate description in 2011, maybe even more so as it cured to perfection with age. His shoulders and chest and back, all sprinkled with gray hairs, were also ornamented by little flaps of skin and yellow bumps and constellations of scars. You got the feeling these marks were not merely symptomatic of old age but evidence of life lived. Like gang tattoos or the dings and cuts and scraps on a legendary whale, there was probably a story to be told about each.
Harrison’s body, very much exposed, was also — for lack of a better word — disgusting. The tips of his otherwise white and writerly facial hair were permanently tinged orange and yellow. He reeked of cigarettes. Each breath brought with it the soft sound of a valve opening somewhere deep inside what must have been pitch black lungs. He’d battled so much gout that a New York Times article once featured him as a kind of poster child for the disease. You could all but hear his heart struggling to beat. Yet he offed some gamey come-on more pheromonal than logical. I found myself drawn to him in a deep, earthy way, as though pulled by a rare magnetic force. It wasn’t hard to imagine why the Russian ballerina he’d seen in Seattle had asked him to get comfortable on the floor of her hotel room — I wanted, a bit, to ask him to do the same. While it was hard to picture him physically able to have sex, my mind seemed to want to try and see it happen anyway.
“Right on the lawn last year,” Harrison started, slow and deliberate, taking time between clauses to fork and chew, and just to breathe. “I saw a mother and daughter mountain lion kill a subspecies of white-tailed deer called a Coos.” The story about the animals in his yard, like many of Harrison’s stories, eventually bled together with related memories into a kind of epic nature narrative. “The deer kept jumping up and the lions would go up after it and haul it back down.” After the lions kill the deer, a “discouraging visual” also witnessed by one of his now-deceased dogs, a lab, we’re on to a rattlesnake, and another dog, his beloved setter. After a snakebite, “her heart got improbably large,” she died, too, and Harrison “went to war,” carrying a “pistola” on his walks, and hiring a professional snake catcher to kill thousands at his Montana property. “For the rattlesnakes,” he said, pointing to a few stray birdshot shells on a crude 2-by-4 shelf. “The bee-bees are most effective. You shoot in the head and it macerates their brain.”
“Here’s the thing about the gray hawks,” Harrison said, moving on to birds. “I’m not into scientific niceties” — he gestured to a large stack of Sibley’s bird books on the mantle behind a sofa — “we’ll look them up later in the guide. I haven’t heard one yet. But they usually arrive about this week. They have the weirdest voice in the world, sounds like a wake in Ireland. Sort of a ‘keeey.’ They’re ‘keeeey-ing’ all the time.”
“Folly,” Harrison said, turning to the dog by his side, “The arts are a cruel mistress.” He slid a copy of his latest book of poems across the table, cracked open to the title page, which he had signed:
“For Peter, Good day, Jim Harrison
remember photo of Alicia Vikander
Then Harrison rose from the table and, undertaking an operation that occupied him for much of the next several minutes, stuck his head and arms through a worn teal T-shirt. As we moved to sit outside, his sharp “ohhs” or “ahhs” marked nearly every step. And when we finally landed in a pair of rusty metal lawn chairs in front of some bushes and a bird feeder, Harrison began talking about his failing health and ongoing pain: “The spinal surgery,” he explained “wasn’t entirely successful.”
I. The Backyard
PETER NOWOGRODZKI: Nearly everything you write draws heavily on your life. Yet this recent novella, The Ancient Minstrel, seems to be a truly autobiographical story, your story. The book’s “Author’s Note” begins, “Some years ago when I was verging on sixty years and feeling poignantly the threat of death I actually said to myself, ‘Time to write a memoir.’ So I did. Time told another story and over fifteen years later I’m still not dead.” And then you’ve got a little disclaimer: “I decided to continue the memoir in the form of a novella. At this late a date I couldn’t bear to lapse into any delusions of reality in nonfiction.”
JIM HARRISON: Yeah, it was meant to be. Because my publisher wanted me to finish my memoir Off to the Side. And I didn’t want to finish it. So I said I’d do it fictionally, to get the mood of it. I guess I do that to throw people off the scent, too. My first novel, Wolf — which got rather naughty — I called that novel a “false memoir.” So I didn’t have to deal with my mother.
An iridescent red hummingbird hovered up to Harrison’s dangling sugar feeder.
There’s a rufous hummingbird. They weigh less than five grams and migrate more than 2,000 miles. Did you have conversations with your family about your transgressions?
See, you’re younger. That’s why you’re asking that kind of question. Because you’re interested in perimeters of relationships. But, yeah, it’s come up. My mother said, “Why don’t your people ever have normal sex.” And I said, “Did you ever have normal sex?” And she said, “Mind your own business!” That kind of silliness. But, for most people, writing is a mystery. So they don’t intrude on stories because rarely is it strictly autobiographical.
Three black birds croaked overhead.
There go some ravens — just flew by. I’m not sure sex is ever normal.
Who cares! Chuck Bowden — the writer who lived here last summer while we were away — he used to get big bribes of tripe and throw them over the fence. The ravens would descend in great numbers to eat the tripe. But then, if he failed to feed them, they’d come up in the yard and peck at his bedroom window, saying, “I want more food.” I’ve noticed that chickadees, too, knock at the windows near the feeders that they visit. I’ve studied a lot of ravens. Up at my cabin in the UP of Michigan we had just hundreds and hundreds of them. But they’re the northern raven. Around here it’s the Chihuahuan raven. The northern raven is much larger. At my studio, they’d show at about 11 o’clock every morning — I would come out and have a chat with them. And then when they’d see me elsewhere, this particular group of ravens, they’d stop and squawk at me and tell me that I was in the wrong place — at least I think that’s what they were saying.
Where was the right place?
Back home. They were used to seeing me only at my studio. I was out of context. They’re very intelligent.
I got up to use the bathroom. Harrison gestured toward a stand of bamboo growing down along the creek and offered that I pee on it. “It creeps up every year. I have a man thin most of it because it was getting too thick. But that one spot’s Folly’s hideout so I didn’t disturb it.” I walked down to the thicket and Harrison continued talking, to Folly: “Why are you digging a hole? Ah, go ahead. I’m not a lawn person” — but then the dog followed me down, and I could still hear him in the background: “Hey, Joyce! Hey, Joyce! Hey, Joyce?” No response. Then, to me: “The other trouble is that I had shingles three years ago. But it developed into what they call postherpetic neuralgia. Which means that where all the sores were on my scapula, the sores have all gone, but the pain remains because of the quarrel between nerves and my scapula. So it’s very unpleasant to deal with the spine problems, the shingle problems, and plus the wife’s death.”
You ever seen a blue grosbeak? They’re marvelous.
I’ve seen the rose-breasted grosbeak.
And the evening grosbeak. We would have flights of them through the Upper Peninsula, going up north. It was tremendous. I’d wake up and there’d be a hundred grosbeaks in my yard. The delight of it all, if you watch closely. I once watched a golden eagle and a group of gulls arguing over a fish on the shoreline. Just screaming at each other. The gulls overwhelmed him. He got sick of it. Down here there’s an irritating bird called a Gila woodpecker. That’s the most awful voice. I’ve seen Gilas land on a limb with a red-tailed hawk, and scream at the red-tail so long he finally just gives up and flies away. It’s too irritating. But I haven’t been hearing my Gilas yet this year. And it’s the canyon wren I most miss. Right outside my bedroom window there’s a big rose bush, and often I’d be awaken to a canyon wren by the window, consequently just a few yards from my ear, calling out in the morning. It’s a lovely way to wake up. I love their voice.
What’s the canyon wren’s voice?
Well, it’s just very beautiful. It starts with a little chatter and then a long clear call. I can’t — the imitations of the voices in the bird books are out of the question. That doesn’t tell me anything until I hear it and recognize it. You know you get addicted to certain voices. When I was young and we built a shack on the lake. There were quite a few loons — and loons have such a fabulous voice.
Yes. The one I always miss out west is the veery. You know the veery? It’s like elven flutes.
Yeah, I know it. My mother was obsessed with veeries. She got very good at birds. She had cataracts. Couldn’t see well. But after my father died she built a 30-acre thicket around our house, on the old family farm. About 70 bushes — all bird positive and in a big farming area that drew in incredible migrates. She knew all the warblers by voice, you know, which some people get to. She and my wife Linda once counted 115 species here in three days. Which is amazing. They were flying through, up from Mexico. Linda, my wife who recently died. I guess I told you.
I’m so sorry to hear that. Did your wife write at all?
No. She was a fabulous reader — always the first one to read my manuscripts. She helped me with nearly everything I wrote. Not much poetry — nobody can help you with poetry. Are you a poet, too?
That’s been my obsession since I read Keats at 14. I went, whammm, this is it. It’s a calling not a job. It’s a religious calling, you know? Here I am, an old man, but I’ve published 40 books, which is sort of a 19th-century kind of tradition. I don’t know what else to do, so I write. It’s my way of seeing the world.
Did Linda read the manuscript for The Ancient Minstrel?
Yeah. Then she died. She thought it was wonderfully comic. She thought it was typical that the woman should tell her husband she wanted a llama to keep company with her horses, and he’d drive home with seven piglets. I’ve always been — since I was a little boy — obsessed with piglets. They’re so intelligent, pigs. As a boy on a farm I liked to hold the piglet — you scratch its tummy and it’ll go to sleep, like a hawk. You know hawks fall asleep like that. We raised a couple injured hawks in our pump shed and then let them go in the spring. Feed them things like chicken necks, you know. You throw them up in the spring and they collapse once, you throw them up again and they fly away. And then they visit all the time. [The poet] Merrill Gilfillan came to see me here once — he is a genuinely great birder, much like my friend Peter Matthiessen was — and he counted 60 different warblers in those willows down there. Then my brother, John, he taught [the ornithologist] David Allen Sibley in Sunday School in Guilford, Connecticut. He got to know the Sibley family well. John died, too, though. You gotta be careful, people die.
The second part of Peter Nowogrodzki’s interview with Jim Harrison is available here.