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Birnbaum v.

Jim Harrison

Our man in New Hampshire talks with Jim Harrison, author extraordinaire, about life in Montana, female chauvinism, navel-gazing in New York, and how a good MFA program might be established.

Writer Jim Harrison’s substantial body of work includes four volumes of novella trilogies, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Legends of the Fall, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and Julip; and eight novels, The Road Home, Wolf, A Good Day to Die, Farmer, Warlock, Sundog, Dalva, and his newest, True North. Additionally, he has published seven poetry collections, most recently The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems; Just Before Dark, a book of essays and collected nonfiction, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, a collection of essays on food; and a children’s book, The Boy Who Ran to the Woods. And, of course, numerous screenplays and his memoir, Off to the Side (of which Jonathan Yardley said, “Literary careerists will find nothing here to help them take the next step up the ladder, but plain readers will find lovely prose, an original mind and a plainspoken man.”). Harrison’s books have won numerous awards, have been translated into 22 languages and are international bestsellers. After years of living in Michigan, Harrison recently moved to Montana. He divides his time between there and Arizona.

True North tells the story of the son of a wealthy timber family, including a depraved and alcoholic father, a besotted, pill-popping mother, a lapsed priest uncle, and a sister who defies family expectations by consorting with the Native American-Finnish gardener’s son. It is David Burkett’s nearly lifelong project to come to terms with the sins of his fathers and to travel his life’s journey benefiting from the tutelage of a the wonderful and courageous women he has loved. The reviews of True North have been mixed—and I might add, undependable—but Gordon Hauptfleisch exhibits a good grasp of this novel:

Still, if Harrison’s newest work is flawed and uneven, it is nevertheless a rich and satisfying read for the strenuously poetic passages detailing not only the complexities, quirks, and intricacies of human emotions and interactions, but also for conveying a solid sense of place. Harrison strays now and then from his Michigan birthplace, as he has throughout his life and in his writing, but the most authentically portrayed and vivid scenes in True North are those that take place in the Upper Peninsula, making a rustic backwoods cabin in the forbidding frozen wilderness seem the quintessence of hearth and home. It certainly helps elucidate why a character would go to the ends of the world to safeguard his little corner of it.

Jim Harrison and I (and Rosie) gabbed for a while during the Boston leg of the recent book tour he has referred to as “a month in a dentist chair.” I might add, my Lab Rosie is also a big Harrison fan.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Last night you finished your reading with a poem called “Adding It Up.”

Jim Harrison: Yeah.

RB: Which you recommended not to do. [chuckles]

JH: Trying to add it up, yeah. Trying to balance, it’s like balancing the chaos theory.

RB: Does that indicate [a certain] self-consciousness about aging?

JH: No, I think it’s natural to be aware of it. I just wrote my second short story, which I discussed the other day with Deborah Treisman of the New Yorker. It’s called “Biological Outcast,” about the sexual thoughts of an older man wandering through New York City on a May afternoon. No, you are very conscious of that kind of thing. How old are you?

RB: Fifty-seven.

JH: It’s coming. You know, just thinking about—I don’t know if it’s self-consciousness. Everybody becomes intermittently aware that it’s passing faster than they thought it would. You know?

RB: There are reminders. On the other hand, there are moments that last so long.

JH: Well, I like that idea because I lived for 35 years rather close to an Indian reservation, Anishinabe-Chippewa. One of my friends there, a real geezer, said that our error is that life lasts exactly seven times longer than the way we live it, if you slow everything down, which is an interesting point. I can do that when fishing or walking. Then there are book tours, where everything is so geometrically staged. So you have a 19-page itinerary, with everything down to the last minute.

RB: You did have that story recently in the New Yorker, “Father Daughter.” Deborah Treisman is talking to you about another one?

JH: Yeah.

RB: Are these stories being written to be specifically published in the New Yorker?

JH: No, not really. David Remnick and I had a meeting a year ago with Deborah—[about] getting me to do something for them. It’s a more open magazine than it was years ago when it was, it seemed to me, specifically New England, though they did publish the entirety of that novella, Woman Lit by Fireflies, about 15 years ago. They published the whole thing. But they no longer do pieces that long. It was 110 pages.

RB: Do you have a sense that you are not paid attention to in the East Coast?
Harrison, by Robert Birnbaum
JH: That’s basically true. Sometimes I wonder, because my last two readings in New York, down at the mother store of Barnes & Noble, have been very well attended. But I’m not sure that any of that matters. We are all naturally xenophobic. New Yorkers are mostly interested in New York—in case you haven’t noticed. Most of them wouldn’t have any frame of reference for a novel like Dalva. I actually had a guy in New York, an unnamed literary critic, ask me, “Do you know an Indian?” That’s an interesting question.

RB: I thought it interesting that there is a multitude of literary websites, many of which regularly report what the New Yorker’s weekly story is. When your story came out, unless I missed it, none of these sites made mention of it.

JH: I don’t know. I’m rather remote from what some refer to as the centers of ambition, just because I like to live in places—most places I live you can’t see any neighbors at all. None. And that suits me. Partly, it’s [about] claustrophobia.

RB: You couldn’t have been claustrophobic in Michigan and now in Montana and in Arizona?

JH: We’re down near the Mexican border, down in the mountains.

RB: What does it say that in the last year the New Yorker published a story by [Thomas] McGuane, which I don’t think they had done for the longest time, and now by you?

JH: Well, they are looking for that kind of thing. They’re not just sitting there waiting anymore. I am doing a food piece for them of a peculiar origin. A friend of mine, a book collector/dealer in Burgundy, France, had a lunch for a group of friends that had 37 courses in November and took 11 hours. [both laugh]

RB: I thought you swore off these kinds of indulgences?

JH: No, I just picked at the food. Nineteen wines. It was a nice lunch. [both laugh] This was all food from the 17th and 18th centuries. He is a great bibliophile of ancient books on food and wine. So he made tortes of pig’s noses, you know. Old timey stuff. It was interesting, of course, the origins of dishes.

RB: You alluded last night to the fact that you were doing more journalism.

JH: Any time I feel closed in—well, then I’ll try something else. I’m not rational enough to be a good journalist.

RB: What!

JH: I fly off the handle too easily.

RB: Uh huh. For instance that remarkable and moving piece that you wrote for Men’s Journal on living on the border, that was irrational?

So Ana Claudia crossed with her brother and child into Indian country, walking up a dry wash for 40 miles, but when she reached the highway she simply dropped dead near the place where recently a 19-year-old girl also died from thirst with a baby at her breast. The baby was covered with sun blisters, but lived. So did Ana Claudia’s. The particular cruelty of a dry wash is that everywhere there is evidence of water that once passed this way, with the banks verdant with flora. We don’t know how long it took Ana Claudia to walk her only 40 miles in America, but we know what her last hours were like. Her body progressed from losing one quart of water to seven quarts: lethargy, increasing pulse, nausea, dizziness, blue shading of vision, delirium, swelling of the tongue, deafness, dimness of vision shriveling of the skin, and then death, the fallen body wrenched into a question mark. How could we not wish that politicians on both sides of the border who let her die this way would die in the same manner? But then such people have never missed a single lunch. Ana Claudia Villa Herrera. What a lovely name

JH: I was non-functional for several months after that. I figured out it was probably that my own sister died at 19 and they [Ana and his sister] suddenly got confused. I mean the two women got confused [in my mind]. What can you say when you find a girl—it was interesting, a Navajo head detective on the Papago reservation, a Navajo woman, Begay, how she pointed out down on these arroyos, where people have died, died of thirst and the bodies not found for a while, those little patches are more fertile in the shape of a human body. Remarkable. A real eye opener.

RB: I thought that piece was in an odd venue for something so poignant and sorrowful and thoughtful. What was the response?

JH: Well, I had a quite a response. I like to stay off brand.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I don’t want to be just a writer that can be identified in one kind of—

RB: You mean Harper’s, Atlantic, New Yorker?

JH: Yeah, yeah, that kind of thing. I don’t want any of that. One becomes overly aware of that at certain times of one’s life, and then you think, “Oh God, I made a deal with that crowd.”

RB: That presumes you have a good sense of how people are seeing you.

JH: No, I don’t necessarily—I’m not sure one could give a lot of time to thinking about it. It would break your motion, what you are doing. You know?

RB: I think that in Off to the Side you mention that in your lifetime the city/country population has shifted from 70 percent country and 30 percent city to the other way around. Would that be something that affects your following, especially on the East Coast?

JH: My type of writer gains an audience by accretion. I don’t think it’s advertising or anything. Why do I read things? It’s basically word of mouth. Some friend or someone I know whose taste I respect says, “You gotta read this.” Then I read it. I rarely read or buy a book because of a review. I had noticed, it’s interesting, it’s getting a little more like France here, which is curious. There is a neurologist, a woman over at Harvard who wanted me to come talk to them, and in France I have a lot of readers in the sciences. I can’t tell you why. I certainly don’t have a pop audience or a strictly literary audience. It’s all spread out. But that was very gradually acquired.

It’s just like young writers, of whom I am deluged—you have to be giving your entire life to this because that’s the only way it’s possible. This can’t be an avocation. It’s the whole thing. Or nothing. RB: The only criticism I have encountered of you that I didn’t have a response to, mostly because I don’t think I understand it, is that you are a torch carrier for “male sentimentality.” Do you know what that means?

JH: That’s the same violin they have been playing for a long time—it’s not a very large percentage of feminists that place a great deal of stock in never being understood. We can’t understand them. Which is bullshit. I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.

RB: It seems to be a dismissal of the writer’s mission, which is to be credible on a wide range of different kinds of characters.

JH: Well, exactly. It’s a little catchword and you’ll notice there are people—I remember when I wrote McGuane about moving west finally, when we had talked about it 36 years ago.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I said, “Christ, I hope when I come out there I will no longer have to hear the words, ‘closure’ and ‘healing.’”

RB: [laughs]

JH: And he says, “No, out here you’ll hear ‘megafauna’ and ‘sustainable.’“ [both laugh] I mean there are these little terms that people use.

RB: I think you refer to them as “verbal turds” somewhere.

JH: Yeah. People place great stock in these things, which to me are absolutely meaningless. Like, “Bob has issues.” What the fuck does that, mean? Stop it! Yeah, yeah, I remember René Char said, “Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun.”

RB: [laughs] It strikes me that you seem to be dismissive of two things that have great currency in America: psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication.

JH: I don’t know what psychotherapy does. I have been seeing the same person for 26 years now.

RB: [laughs]

JH: For symptomatic relief of human suffering. Only when I’m in New York. We have a correspondence this high. [makes a gesture to indicate size of a stack of letters] No, I think, I think you naturally always have to be careful from both Jesus and Kierkegaard—[they] said to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This isn’t a bandage thing, you know.

RB: Yeah. Right.

JH: It’s just like young writers, of whom I am deluged—you have to be giving your entire life to this because that’s the only way it’s possible. This can’t be an avocation. It’s the whole thing. Or nothing.

RB: And what do they say?

JH: Most of them, that’s very intimidating. They really haven’t wanted to commit to it, to that extent. But they have to. It’s a strange thing—I didn’t want to understand it when I first read it but I was 19 or something—Dylan Thomas said in order to be a poet or a writer you have to be willing to fall on your face over and over and over. Everybody wants to be cool—

RB: You have to be willing?

JH: Yeah. Which is an interesting point, yeah.

RB: You have to know that that’s going to happen.

JH: You should. [both laugh]

RB: I may never get over Tibor Fischer’s story of having being rejected by 56 publishers.

JH: It happens doesn’t it? Portrait of the Artist went to 19. The old fun thing is when somebody typed up the first chapter of War and Peace. And then made a précis of the rest of it and sent it out and only one publisher recognized it.

RB: That does speak to the crapshoot nature of the enterprise.

JH: Yeah, somewhat. Persist, though, and it will happen.

RB: There is so much subjectivity. I know in a simple kind of banal way that I have reread things and wondered what I was thinking the first or second time. It’s as if I hadn’t read it before—like a new work.

JH: Uh huh, that’s the chaotic aspect I’ve always enjoyed. That’s—the void isn’t empty. [both laugh] I like that. I tell young writers, “You know, part of being a writer is to know how this works. And rather than you trying to throw yourself in my lap, why don’t you go, save your coin and go to New York and live in the Bronx cheaply and find out how it works.” I had that advantage when we lived in Boston, in the ‘60s, the only job I could get was as a salesman for a book wholesaler. I just drove around and talked to bookstores and public libraries and school librarians. And that was a very healthy thing to see in the warehouse how this happens. Because most writers have totally unrealistic concepts of how publishing works. Sometimes in literary biography you forget that the publisher isn’t the main thing. They like to think they are—when you are in New York and you see these people, it’s amazing. But, there are good and bad ones, historically, obviously. It’s important for writers to know that just like a farmer growing 80 acres of something and then not knowing what can be done with it, “How am I going to get rid of my chickens, my milk?” On and on.

RB: Isn’t what all these writing programs are about?

JH: Yes, but they are singularly unrealistic.

I remember when I was 19 and reading Gogol or Isaac Singer because that meant a great deal to me—because even though they are foreign stories, they were more the kind of thing I grew up around. Emotionally vigorous family. Talking out loud. RB: There are people who complain that they are more about the vocational aspects of writing than the writing.

JH: I’m not that familiar with them but I do see—I mean, are there 25,000 MFA manuscripts wandering around out there? We have really made the MFA, as I have pointed out before, almost part of the civil service. We started with two really good one ones, Iowa and Stanford, you know, Stegner’s program.

RB: Didn’t Montana have a good program early on?

JH: Yeah, but now suddenly—you know, universities are notoriously market oriented, too. So they all want, if it works, a department like that. The trouble is there’s not enough appropriate staff to go round. I am for a novelist, for a poet, well read. I really keep up. I see whole staffs that I don’t know the work of any of them. And I wonder where they came from. There is this problem of doubting that it can be taught. I only taught in that great period at Stonybrook. And I didn’t teach writing. I taught modern poetics. I have never been able to find the sheet of paper but I had this idea of how to construct a good MFA program. OK, at that time in the ‘60s, there was Ben DeMott and R.V. Cassill and we had a meeting in New York trying to figure out how we could get universities to hire writers [laughs]—because they needed jobs. OK, it got out of control. I had the idea—you meet up for a month in a location, right? You have your journal and then you get to the main 300 books in the modernist tradition. Or whatever. Then the student spends a year in the country, preferably at menial labor. Comes back for a month. Then he spends a year in the city and comes back for a month and then the end of it the third year, several months with the teachers, just to make sure it isn’t one of those grade school-high school-college MFAs. Because that’s only a narrow experience. You know how [Ezra] Pound talked about the grave danger of starting from too narrow a base. Then you really tip over very easily. It’s like the one-book wonder. What you are doing, where are you going to go?

RB: It’s all interior and experientially deprived. And ultimately, of limited interest.

JH: Not to me. It’s hard to be programmatic about it but I question—in fact it’s insignificant that I’m questioning the value of it because it’s already there. Another one of these improbable boondoggles. It caused a revolution in the rise in expectations. Which is totally—

RB: It does provide a fair number of writers sinecures. And, of course, the conventional wisdom is that it also, at the very least, creates a new generation of decent readers.

JH: That’s the best point that’s the solidest point of all of them. I think McGuane pointed out to me once because he had a solid base to his economic thinking—

RB: In contradistinction to you?

JH: Yeah, he’s smart that way. He pointed out to me that—we’re still whining about it—“Isn’t strange that a person can get a lifetime-guaranteed position on the basis of a slender volume of poems?” Yeah, that’s an extraordinary break, if they got in early enough. Now, it’s a question of competition. I was always shocked at the offers I would get. Even when I felt totally anonymous, still in my 30s and 40s. They would make me these incredible offers. And I would always answer that somebody has to stay on the outside.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I would also answer, “Are you sure, that much money?” It’s like Gary Snyder said when I once went out and spent a week with him a few years back, he says, “I always turned down this thing at [University of California at] Davis, that regents’ professor[ship].” He could have gotten into any of the California universities. He said, “It never occurred to me to ask how much they were paying.” [laughs]

RB: How pure can you be?

JH: It wouldn’t have occurred to him. He is decidedly non-venal.




Harrison, by Robert Birnbaum

Harrison makes a move on Rosie


RB: One striking thing about True North is that it is uncommon to make a dog a character in a novel.

JH: Who, Carla? Well, they are so specifically characters in our lives. Why not?

RB: Right, why not? So why don’t more writers include animal companions as characters?

JH: I used to get criticized for putting food in novels. These are people ignorant of the novel tradition. It was always in French and English fiction. But a lot of us are still puritanical, still sort of ashamed they have to fill up every day. It’s like food isn’t serious. And a faculty meeting is? [Both laugh] What gays used to say, “Puhlease!”

RB: Given how many people love and keep dogs it would seem natural that more dogs would appear in fiction as part of the lives and families of the characters.

JH: That didn’t occur to me but when I was doing it, it seemed natural. I grew up in a very odd way because my father was an agronomist and he needed to think—and I grew up thinking that everybody had—that animals were our fellow creatures. I don’t consider myself more important than a crow. I never have. How could I possibly be? Or a dog. We are all in this together. So I am not a victim of the French Enlightenment.

RB: [laughs heartily]

JH: There are some advantages to a peasant background.

RB: So in an odd way, this is not an enlightened view?

JH: So they would say, intellectually. I remember when I was 19 and reading Gogol or Isaac Singer because that meant a great deal to me—because even though they are foreign stories, they were more the kind of thing I grew up around. Emotionally vigorous family. Talking out loud.

RB: Chaotic.

JH: Chaotic and moody. So it was odd—it was more familiar to me.

RB: I find it odd but understandable that so many people treat their animal companions as children, as almost humans.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. That happens. People, there’s no end to the craziness of people, so I’m not upset by that when I see it.

RB: I’m bothered that they are not seeing, in this case, dogs on their own terms.

JH: Well, quite often that’s true. They expect a dog to be something for them that a dog can’t be. Whether it’s a surrogate child or what?

RB: I like Ed Hoagland’s observation that instead of expecting dogs to be more human, we ought to try to be more like dogs.

JH: That’s wonderful. That old Cheyenne thing, Lakota too, called Heyoka, a spiritual renewal. Following your dog around all day and behaving totally like the dog. If the dog lays down, you lay down. That lovely calming sense—my Lab always understood, my other dogs haven’t to the extent that my Lab did, when I was depressed she would try to get me off my cot in my cabin and get me to go do something. “Just do something. Just don’t lay there, you schmeil.” [laughs] “Schmuck.”

RB: So what happens when you write a sad scene for an animal? Is it hard for you to do?

JH: Oh yes. That’s an irony. People have asked a number of times about Carla. I was torn. Isn’t it interesting, you create a dog out of air, right? And then when she dies you break into tears. That’s natural. There is a specious fear of that kind of sentimentality—but it’s in all good literature. And then the idea of being nifty and cool and ignoring the true emotional content of your life. Why would anyone want to read about that? That kind of cold—

RB: Why would one?

JH: I don’t.

The fact is, the media never gets off the interstate unless there’s a major explosion. RB: I’ve been watching this excellent TV series from England called Cracker. Robbie Coltrane plays a forensic psychiatrist working for the police, who smokes, drinks and gambles, to excess.

JH: Oh, yeah. He’s awfully good. I adore that guy. He’s just so on the money.

RB: Yes, he is. So there is a scene where his mother has just died and he is sitting with his wife, crying. And he says there is something delicious about this, meaning that this grief that he is feeling is a rare real emotion that he can savor and experience as a dog.

JH: I once wrote a poem—I don’t know if I even published it—about how I wanted to throw my own self around and have some real emotions. Although people tend to avoid them, these are always the harshest emotions. It’s like face-to-face, this is the context. We’ve had a lot of friends die recently. I was going to read this poem last night about my shrinking address book. My wife’s best friend died within three days of my brother. How can this be? Well, it’s the end of everybody’s story. As they say the last track you leave, as a mammal is your skull.

RB: It seems we are trained to avoid the emotional—

JH: No question. It’s a part of the culture. I think it’s the economic basis of a lot of our lives. It’s that idea that I imply, I don’t preach in True North, but one of the aspects of it is how the powers that be, the old logging and mining companies, always encourage these people to mythologize their lives. Paul Bunyan! It’s marvelous how they do that. Not that it is just a sucker’s shot; everybody tries to mythologize their efforts. But it’s actually encouraged. It’s that funny thing, the French, they go berserk that we will only take 10 days for vacation. Why? How can you get ahead?

RB: The Italians and the Germans, too?

JH: Even the Germans demand a month or five weeks to walk around in leather shorts or however we think they do it.

RB: What a shell game.

JH: It is in the sense that it ignores quality of life and the inevitable end of life. There’s a story that Catholic priest told me. The Italian dies. The family is talking about the great meals they had together. The French dies. They talk about the great wines they drank. The American dies and the family asks, “Did they leave enough money or do they have enough money, money, money?” But the last 25 years in America have been characterized by imponderable greed. You know, greed, greed, greed. The newspapers made heroes in the dot-com days—there is this guy suddenly worth five million dollars sitting in an empty mansion eating an American cheese sandwich. And they have to have personal shoppers because they don’t know how to buy toilet paper or something like that. Craziness, all that.

RB: I admire your interest in driving around the United States. There is one view that one can develop of a crassly materialistic eating and shopping culture and then there seems to be another rarely seen, that pictures people trying to live reasonable, healthy, full lives.

JH: That’s true. That’s one reason why I have to be a writer. I don’t find anything perceptually accurate or agreeable or sensical about the media view of American culture. The fact is, the media never gets off the interstate unless there’s a major explosion. That’s why I said before, for the MFA program, a year in the country, a year in the city, to get familiarity with the human landscape. You’re not going to get it in a university community.

RB: He may be a neighbor of yours in Montana, but Alston Chase wrote a book about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and he excoriates the media for getting everything about Kaczynski wrong.

JH: I know Alston. It’s also interesting that 99 percent of what Ted Kaczynski said made sense.

RB: [laughs]
Harrison, by Robert Birnbaum
JH: Alston points that out. And it’s sort of, “Uh oh.” It was the killing people that just didn’t work, amongst other things. Historically, nothing is surprising. Some professor—I think up in Connecticut [Wesleyan University] a guy named [Richard] Slotkin, he writes that this violence is the tradition since the inception of America. Just like logging. We want to cut down trees, cut down the buffalo, cut down everything as fast and completely as possible. We have always been this way.

RB: I am currently toying with the notion that there is not one but two or three Americas. It may be a natural inclination to try to see this country as a unity.

JH: No, I think there are at least seven I can identify. That kind of regionality. And again, it causes xenophobia. The unwillingness of people in one part of the country to want to understand people in any sympathetic way, other people. I think it was McGuane that pointed out the assumption in the North that every white Southerner was ex posto facto a racist. I remember reading in Oxford, Mississippi; one thing nice was there were black people in the audience. You don’t see that in the North. Or rarely. I see more genuine sociability between the races in Mississippi than I see in Michigan. No question.

RB: It hasn’t changed much, has it. I asked Reynolds Price about what defined Southern culture—trying to get a definition of Southern writing—he said it was the close proximity and familiarity to and with black people.

JH: Yup. Reynolds is a marvelous man. I finally met him a few years ago. I have always enjoyed his work and some of his nonfiction is particularly trenchant. But, that’s true.

RB: There is of course the caricature of the Gothic Southern family, inbred with various bizarre characters and histories.

JH: I got a strange letter from Mississippi in regard to True North. The person said, “I didn’t know a Gothic novel could be written about the North.” [both laugh] “Oh, Dad, you’re such a pill.”

RB: You mentioned last night that you had thought of writing this novel 17 years ago. So what intervened? Why didn’t you start then?

JH: Well, just the accumulation. I brooded about it a long time. And then I brood about different things and usually I have quite a lead time about anything I write. Since I am writing a novella now called Republican Wives, which is fun, right?

RB: Sure.

JH: And, ah, I have been thinking about writing this for about a decade. But then a certain part of your brain is always accumulating the touches, the materials. Of course, you make squiggles in your journals and then, finally, you’re ready.

RB: So, as you’ve said, you write it when you can’t not write it?

JH: Yeah, that’s my rule of thumb.

RB: Does it have the same [working] title all along? True North was always True North?

JH: No, no. That’s more recent. I do have trouble with titles.

RB: Might you have saddled this book with a certain gravity because it has the word ‘true’ in it? A powerful word.

JH: Oh no, I don’t mind being adventuresome that way. I’m going to write a total laborite view of the same region. Which was going to be fun, the Indian-Finn-Cornish-Italian-miner view of it, because I even know that world better, I’ve known a lot of these kind of people that are in True North and they are interesting to me—for obvious reasons.

RB: Has it been unsettling to move from Upper Peninsula Michigan to Montana?

JH: Not at all because I think we have gone to Montana every year since ‘68 except one year. Tom [McGuane] and I kept in touch. Our family vacation was to go to Montana, to go fishing, and my wife’s friends are out there.

RB: Your daughter Jamie is out there also.

JH: See, that’s the whole thing. Your kids inevitably want to move where they had their vacations when they were younger. So both daughters have been living in Montana for a long time. My wife in this case has stuck with it—she wanted to move to Montana, it was no big deal to me. I can write anywhere. I hated to sell my cabin. I’ve had it 25 years and it meant so much to me. It was a retreat, you know? But it was too far to drive and I am getting older and I only went there three times last year and it involved 15 days of driving. These distances; you can barely drive across Montana in a day.

RB: You say you can write anywhere but might there be a different feeling whereever you might be—in the center of the country you are not near the concentration of microwaves and such—doesn’t Montana feel different?

JH: Well, yeah. I was thinking last year in—not to overplay this hand but it’s interesting. But I was reading a galley by a guy named Mark Spragg coming out by Knopf, an intriguing book. And I was wondering if I agreed with the character who had been injured by a grizzly bear. OK, then I thought, “What am I thinking about?” Last year there were two grizzly attacks on humans within 15 minutes of our home, and last winter a pack of wolves killed 28 sheep within view of our bedroom window. Plus my dog got blinded by a rattlesnake in the yard.

RB: How’d that happen?

JH: She’s an English setter and she obviously pointed and the snake got her twice in the face. It blinded her and deafened her. She’s fine [now] but she’s a little wary about snakes.

RB: How does she move about?

JH: She had a hard time for about four or five months. She is pretty much completely recovered. There is a guy named Harry Greene at Cornell, a fantastic authority on snakes and snake venom—rattlers in particular. He has a beautiful book out about the poisonous snakes of the world. Very complicated poisons; the contents of rattlesnake poison are very involved, toxic substances. A brain surgeon friend of mine in Nebraska, Cleve Tremble, got one in the arm and said it was four or five months before he really felt good again.

RB: The toxins linger in the body that long?

JH: Yeah, your system has really been walloped. I was just in the Yucatan and I met three different people who had to lop off minor parts of their bodies—

RB: [laughs] Minor parts?

JH: After being nicked by a fer-de-lance

RB: By what?

JH: A fer-de-lance, a venomous snake. One had been hit in the foot and chopped it off immediately because if you don’t chop it off you die.

So the Mayans knew of this. One guy had his finger in formaldehyde, he wanted to keep it for sentimental reasons. It’s not that everything is threatening, but it’s a dangerous kind of existence. I’m never frightened in that kind of country. I have been, occasionally, in cities.

RB: What are you afraid of in cities?

JH: Well, guns. In Arizona, it’s curious. You can carry a gun if you wish. In Montana, too. I don’t know anybody that does. That’s an odd thing. Where you can do it, they might have one in their [truck’s] rifle rack. Everybody has a gun in their car in Detroit. Or a lot of people do.

If you want to give Stephen King the lifetime award or whatever it is, go ahead. It doesn’t make any difference to me. But that changes the nature of what you are. They lost their literary credibility about 20 years ago when they took it away from the literary people and gave it to the industry. Remember when that happened? RB: On trips to Israel it was something to be in bars and cafes and see people who looked like teenagers with pistols strapped to their ankles or in their pants waist bands.

JH: I definitely would there, too. I did an interview with a Lebanese paper, and I just assumed they were Muslims, but no. Some of those countries, they are everything. Like Coptic Christians in Egypt. It’s a not very clear picture. This American writer who got severely wounded in Lebanon as a journalist, Phil Caputo, this old friend of mine. And he sat in a bar with quite a few of us and explained the political and religious structure of the Middle East. It stupefied people—we wanted to think it was cleaner.

RB: I think that reading Lawrence Durrell gives a clear picture of how unclear or complicated it is.

JH: Yeah, I love Durrell. One of the great underrated works of our time, The Alexandria Quartet. But who’s doing the rating? Does it matter?

RB: Who is doing the rating? The New York Times.

JH: Probably. I said once, and Bill [William] Kennedy quoted me on it, “The people who were condescending to Steinbeck didn’t even write The Grapes of Goofy.” [both laugh] Give me a break.

RB: There is a pervasive fear that literature is always being threatened and somehow the institutions that should be working to preserve or protect it, aren’t doing that. I don’t see why literary culture rise or falls on what the Times or any other journalists do. Really, what’s the problem?

JH: I don’t think there is one. I said that in my memoir. There are some who think they are guardians. They are not inside themselves but they are still at the gate. I’m not sure what that impulse is. They are enumerators. The Casey Kasems of the critical fraternity. They always a have top 40 or top 20.

RB: I don’t mind although I don’t read them.

JH: [laughs]

RB: James Wood or—

JH: But see, Wood is a very bright man. However you think about him, he is incapable of being boring, critically. I don’ t mind contention.

RB: I just don’t find it useful to talk or speculate about who is going to be read in 50 or 100 years.

JH: Well, you can’t .

RB: [laughs] People do.

JH: It’s so funny, in that 50th anniversary edition of the Paris Review that I wrote a little piece in—Donald Hall has a preposterous piece [Death as a Career Move] in there. He is talking about reputation and what happens to people. Like [Archibald] MacLeish from over at Harvard and whether the Pulitzer Prize [McLeish won three] is a pauper’s grave? Something like that.

RB: [laughs]

JH: You wonder what consensus is. Here I am an old man and only once have I ever been asked to be on a [Pulitzer or any] jury.

RB: Really?

JH: Yeah. Where are they getting the jurors except from New York—that seems to be closer—or something. But that seems odd. I’m not that anonymous. So in any prize situation I always want to know who the jurors are. Because you can’t know the validity. If you want to give Stephen King the lifetime award or whatever it is, go ahead. It doesn’t make any difference to me. But that changes the nature of what you are. They lost their literary credibility about 20 years ago when they took it away from the literary people and gave it to the industry. Remember when that happened?

RB: The first winner of the National Book Award was Nelson Algren and I don’t know that many people remember him.

JH: Well, I think some people do. I’ve heard young writers talking about him. You have to be careful about that, too. Because you are more likely to hear them talking about Algren in Missouri or the state of Washington than in New York. Where the thing you hear most of in New York is, “I don’t have time to read.”

RB: [laughs] You were grievously hurt by that—you mention it in Off to the Side.

JH: It’s funny.

RB: Jim Shepard told me that one of his students remarked he was reading a story Shepard had in Esquire but had not yet finished it. Shepard was incredulous, since it was a three-page story.

JH: This is interesting. You can say, “What is it that you do in place of reading? Drink Spritzers?” I don’t know. Does anyone have time to read? I do. And I write a lot. It’s a tonic to find real readers because they just read massively.

RB: You seem to be the only person who publishes novellas.

JH: When I wrote my first book of novellas, that was the only one I knew of. So people would say, “What’s a novella?”

RB: So, what’s a novella?

JH: I just say that old Hoffmanstal-Isak Dinesen thing: A very long story, about a hundred pages. Short things are short all over and long things are long all over.

RB: Do you feel like what you write now should be more important?

JH: That’s not up to me.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum