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Interview by Thomas McGuane with Kay Bonetti
SOURCE: "Interview with Thomas McGuane," in Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, et al., University of Missouri Press, 1997, pp. 56-75.
In the following interview conducted in 1984, McGuane discusses how he integrates his lifestyle as a Montana Rancher with his writing career.
Tom McGuane's writing career began in the sixties. This interview catches him at age forty-five, looking back on a rebellious youth and forward toward the issues of middle age. He speaks of his enduring fascination with comic writing. He says that the subject of his early novels was the expression of the American dream in the wild West of the 1960s and 1970s, and the realization that acting on those ideals could not be survived. The author of ten books, McGuane writes about brooding protagonists, displaced people, characters who cannot seem to put down roots or reach out to things beyond themselves. These characters are often ironically connected and shaped by their relationships to landscape and place, Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) and Panama (1978) are set in Key West, Florida. The Bushwhacked Piano (1971) tells of an eccentric peregrination through Michigan, Montana, and Florida. Something to be Desired (1984) is set partly in Montana. In many ways his novels are harrowing contemporary novels of manners, about taking drugs, sexual peccadilloes, and chaotic mobility.
McGuane's personal journey from the drug-taking sixties to the life of a responsible citizen and parent is reflected in his novels. The western stories still retain some of the humor of the Florida novels, but the dilemmas of McGuane's protagonists become increasingly serious: divorces, multiple families, tricky business deals, the desperation to settle down. These themes can be seen especially in his novel Nothing But Blue Skies (1992). Other acclaimed works include Nobody's Angel (1981) and The Sporting Club (1968).
[Bonetti:] Can you tell us a little about your life and upbringing?
[McGuane:] I was raised in the Middle West, in Michigan, but my parents were both Boston-area Irish. Except when we were in school, we were always back there in Massachusetts in the big kind of noisy, Irish households of the forties and fifties. My parents were upward-striving, lower-middle-class people who had a facility for English. They both were English majors in college. My father was a scholarship student at Harvard; my mother went to a little school called Regis. Books and talk and language in general were a big part of growing up for me. My family was not excited about me wanting to be a writer; they thought that was very unrealistic.
It is difficult to support yourself as a serious writer.
I think any writer, even an unserious writer, has a bad time of it; a pulp writer or a sold-out writer or a hack has a hard time making a living. To understand the economics of writing is to know that writing and publishing and acquiring some kind of esteem in your community of peers is merely a key to your finances. For example, prestigious writers whose reputations are confined to the literary all live pretty well. They are getting grants and teaching jobs. I would say the people I've seen who teach writing are underworked. Other writers, like me, have been able to find work in film or journalism. There's also a way to get along. I think it's inevitable for writers to sort of feel sorry for themselves and to feel sorrier the more serious they perceive themselves to be.
In the introduction to last year's summer fiction edition of Esquire, Rust Hills claimed that the academy has become the patronage system for writers … and was defending it, moreover. What did you think of that?
I thought it was silly. I think patronage, especially homogenous patronage of the kind that academic writers receive, is exceedingly dangerous and leads to trafficking in reputations.
What do you mean by homogenous?
The colleges are, to a great degree, alike in their form of protection. I think it's good for writers to be in the world, not talking to the converted in English departments day after day—scrambling for survival, having to talk to illiterate neighbors. Obviously mine is a minority voice; this point of view is going to lose. The camp that Rust Hills describes is obviously the camp of sweeping victory.
Because the writers who teach are living pretty well … financially?
When I've been on campus I notice that everybody seems to be getting along better than ranchers in Montana are. There is great security there, the kind of security that the civil service or the post office provides and it goes hand in hand with complacency.
I take it you feel that this situation has a measurable impact on the kind of writing that is being done.
Well, you get these books like the latest Alison Lurie book that is built around sabbaticals. I think John Barth has suffered from being around colleges. To me the most interesting work that Barth did was the earliest work, before he knew what was going to happen to him—The Floating Opera and The End of the Road—books which I think he now kind of repudiates. His stuff lately has been less lifelike, less exciting.
So you disagree with Hills's notion.
I think Rust Hills needed to make a case for the situation now and I think that he felt he needed to overstate it. I think Rust and Esquire are excited about making categories, the new realism or the revival of fantasy, the kind of categories they come up with for the purposes of pigeonholing writers.
So you feel that it's the type of writing that working within the academy encourages that has the negative effect; you aren't saying that because somebody teaches he is going to end up just writing about other teachers …
No … no … I'm not saying that, but I do think that kind of life, that kind of support, is going to limit the access to information and material writers might otherwise have, obviously. I think maybe the best writer we have had in a long time is Saul Bellow and being a chronic teacher hasn't hurt him at all.
So there are obviously exceptions to the rule.
There are, yes, but there is also a kind of academic writer who meters out his publications, who measures himself and politicizes against other academic writers, and that writer is of no use to readers. I think the kind of thing Hills describes in that article represents a severing of the connection between writers and readers.
To be fair, we should think of some notable exceptions; one thinks of Stanley Elkin.
He scarcely seems like an academic writer in any way. There are writers in the outside world who are vastly more academic than Elkin. But when I think of Norman Mailer in the outside world, or of Walker Percy, I think of more adventurous spirits reporting to us from the whole world rather than one of its hyperspecific laminates. This is a purely personal reaction, but I am just more interested in people who have not gone to campuses.
Your books are full of work, aren't they? And skills? Useful information?
Little odds and ends of that sort. Jim Harrison used to needle me because I would hang around the repair bay of a gas station—it really wasn't research. I like to watch people do their thing and I don't care what it is. I like to watch ladies sew, I like to watch people cook, I like to watch people fix cars, I like to watch people commercially fish. I would have to suppress that by some fiat to keep it out of my writing.
At what point did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?
Very early. It was really all I have ever wanted to do.
Did your parents ultimately support you?
Well, my father had a nice rule—and it's the same ruling I take with my children, to the degree I can afford to do it—he basically took the position he didn't want to argue with me about what I wanted to do. He would support me educationally. I was a premed major, I was a prelaw major, I went to the Yale Drama School. I was finally an English major, but I waffled around knowing that I was free to do that. Going to school kept me writing. Then I got a grant at Stanford and that extended another year and in fact when I finished there, I was publishing.
Do you value the Stegner experience?
Not really, no. I value having had the time. I didn't get much out of the Stegner thing; I didn't think he was a good teacher. It was the middle sixties—most of the other writers were thinking that writing was dead and they wanted to march on the electrical engineering building or war contractors; they just weren't interested in literature. I remember Allen Ginsberg coming up in those years and talking to people and finding they hadn't read Ezra Pound and hadn't read Whitman, didn't care, didn't want to know the names. It was an illiterate age and Stanford was just a place to get out of the weather and work on a book.
Is there some particular break that enabled you to start supporting yourself by writing?
Well, yes. I had a book on submission to Dial for six or eight months and was working pretty closely with them. I was encouraged to think that we were close to being able to publish the book. Then, suddenly from overhead the book was killed by the then editor-in-chief, E. L. Doctorow. It was just completely out of the blue and it was the most complete devastation I ever received. I remember thinking that I was going to snap. I had been writing daily for ten years and I didn't really think I could go on. And then … and then I suddenly realized, God, I didn't know how to do anything else. I had had minor menial jobs, but I just didn't really know what else to do. So I kind of holed up and wrote The Sporting Club in about six weeks and sent it to Jim Harrison. Then I lit out for Mexico thinking that I would figure out my life down there. While I was down there a cable came to this little town where I was camped out on the beach in a sleeping bag. This Mexican came out—he had a gun strapped on his waist and he came walking down to my camp and he strode right up and I thought, My God, this guy is going to shoot me. I thought I was going to be placed under arrest or something. I was pretty paranoid. He walked up and thrust out his hand and said in bad English, "Congratulations, your book is accepted." We went hooting and drank beer and had a big celebration. So I came back up and even though the book was accepted there was still work to be done on it. I moved to Montana and worked on the book, and when it came out it did pretty well. Then it was sold to the movies and was made into the worst movie in history.
What was the name of it?
The Sporting Club.
Never saw it.
If you blinked, it was gone. But I was paid for it. I had been accustomed to living on two to four thousand dollars a year and to suddenly get a movie check, man, I was looking at a decade's writing. All of a sudden I realized that if I did nothing but fill up scraps of paper I was gonna be a writer for a while.
The only real money in fiction now seems to be movie money. I know several writers who have managed to buy their first house because of their movie options.
Well, I'm one of those writers for sure … I came out and bought a little ranch here and then it quadrupled in value. I resold it and bought another ranch out east of town and resold it. That turned into my land base and that's what my security derives from now. But when I look around I see these kind of writers—I won't name names—who published one exquisite book of short stories twenty years ago, and have had pretty remunerative academic jobs for twenty years on the basis of that one tiny volume. I would say those writers have made a lot of money off their books.
I hadn't really thought about it that way.
Look what you have to do to get a comparable teaching job on the straight and narrow road: get a doctorate, fight your way through the MLA conventions, hope to get the nod from some backwater school, fight your way for tenure. I think writers have it very easy in colleges. Don't you think so?
In a way, you could say that. And it is unfortunate, because being a good teacher is one skill, being a writer is another. They are not necessarily the same thing at all.
I spoke to that issue at a writers' conference. I said, teaching ideally requires considerable pedagogical abilities and just because you're not making a living entirely by your writing does not mean you have to become a teacher. I've had some miserable writer teachers; they thought they were purely totemic value sitting at the head of a class monosyllabically reacting to students' questions.
Yet some writers feel that it was extremely beneficial to have that community of other writers …
Oh, I give you that … and the Stanford thing was quite interesting that way, the drama school was great that way, but where that was truest for me was as an undergraduate at Michigan State. I had three or four chums there who were really driven to write. Chief among them was Jim Harrison, of course. But there were others of us there, some of whom were very good and didn't make it. We had a really passionate literary situation. It was really beyond anything that I saw thereafter.
I don't think I have ever talked to a writer who didn't agree that writing is a very lonely profession.
I don't think loneliness is the word. John Graves said writing is "anti-life." I'm forty-five years old, I've been writing full-time since I was sixteen, I've been writing almost every day for thirty years; and as I look back with a degree of resentment, I realize that I literally lifted chunks of my life out for drafts of things, some of which got published and some didn't. And there is no experience to show for it, there is nothing but sitting in front of a legal pad for what now must amount to a third of my life. It's as though that was a hole in my life.
But you have had this friendship with another writer, Jim Harrison, all these years. Has it had an impact on your work?
I'm sure we've had an impact on each other's lives and thinking. We've managed to bolster one another in a fairly high view of the mission of writing, so that in lean years and blocked times it still felt that it was kind of a religious commitment. I don't know what writing is seen to be now, but I know that I continue to believe sort of what I believed then; I'm like someone who is intensely and successfully raised as a Catholic or a Lutheran; it just didn't go away from me. And now as I look on a future of freedom from the kinds of worries I used to have, my only vision of excitement is to be able to read and write harder and do what I wanted to do in 1955 or 1956. I am sure that the fact that Harrison and I have been writing back and forth for a quarter of a century almost entirely about writing has been one of the things that keeps that thread intact. Having a handful of writers around the country whose reality is there for you, knowing they are out there, knowing they might get what you are doing, makes you independent a little bit.
Are they the people you write for in a sense of an ideal reader?
There are some writers whose opinion really matters to me—who could really hurt my feelings if they said the book was terrible, who could make me excited by liking it. The three or four people whom you respect thinking that you're not a complete fool can really keep you going.
Who else do you want your books to be accessible to? In the sense of Virginia Woolf's "common reader"?
Let me wind back a little bit by saying I think that the sort of burnt-earth successes of modernism have left prestigious writing quite inaccessible to normal readers. There used to be a perennial New Yorker cartoon where some yahoo from Iowa was standing in front of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art saying, "All I can say is I know what I like" and I think it was meant to show how stupid the average guy is. I actually think that the average guy is right in saying I know what I like. I'm a little bit dour now when it comes to books which are terribly brilliant by some sort of smart-set consensus, but which nobody I know can read.
How important is the language of a novel to you, the joy of words?
There is a thrill to be had in language viewed as music, but I think for that tail to wag the dog is a mistake. Obviously there's an infinite mix and there is no right and wrong about it. At this point in my life the writing that I really like has clarity and earned and rendered feeling as its center. Writers who have done that most successfully leave you feeling experientially enlarged, rather than awed or intimidated—those things which have been the basis of the modernist response in writing.
It seems to me that Nobody's Angel and Something to be Desired are moving towards a simpler and cleaner style than your earlier work. Do you think anything in the earlier work prepared you for this?
I think there has inevitably been some kind of an evolution for me in the rise of emotional content. It's also been a moving away from comedy. I set out to be a comic novelist and that's become not clear to me as time has gone on. Things have happened—you can't live forty-five years without things happening to jar and change you. The biggest change for me was a tremendous uproar in my life during the seventies. My mother, father, and sister died in about thirty months flat. I remember very specifically feeling that it was a watershed, that I would never be the same again after that happened. When you have attended that many funerals that fast it's very hard to go back to a typewriter and say, "What is my next comic novel?" You simply don't do that. But reviewers think you do. Reviewers say, "Why isn't he still as funny as he was before all those deaths?" Reviewers are endlessly obtuse. And that makes you shrink away from what they represent; it makes you shrink away from publication in a funny way because you realize there's this dreadful stupor that you are going to have to march through with your latest infant in your arms.
I'm gathering from what you're saying that the "word-drunk" style in your earlier work was tied in with the fact that it was comic.
Well, yes. I wanted then and will want again to write comic novels. I love comic fiction.
Do you see comic fiction as a tradition and if so, what are some of the elements of it?
Good comic writing comes from a very nearly irrational center that stays viable because it is unexplainable. It often disports itself in a kind of charged language. That is to say it is not appropriate to use exactly the same prose style for writing an all-out comedy as it is for writing a rural tragedy. Each book demands its own stylistic answers. At the same time, one has the right to expect a writer to have a style. I don't think a writer has to be as transparent as the phone book. I don't want to be that. I think, though, as you perfect your style you should hit the target on the first shot rather than on the fourth, and a good writer should get a little bit cleaner and probably a little bit plainer as life and the oeuvre go on.
But it seems to me that there is a charged plainness in your last two books. The simplicity has under it all the skills that went into the others.
Oh, I sure hope so. You want something that is drawn like a bow and a bow is a simple instrument.
There is a lot of wit in Something to be Desired. It's sad in some ways but it's also got a satirical edge. Was that intended?
It wasn't intended to be satirical, but it was intended to be comic. I wanted to take a piece of crazy venture capitalism and show how desperate a private business really is. For some people getting their backs to the walls and starting a successful business can be as desperate an action as taking drugs. The guy says, "My God, I don't know what I'm going to do, I think I'll open a pizza parlor. My life is at an end, I'm going to start a dry cleaners." That seems to be a wholly American approach to desperation.
It also is pretty funny.
It's hilarious. But once you spot it, you can go into a town and all you see is desperation. You see some sad lady with a fashion outlet in downtown Livingston, Montana. You know, the wind is blowing through the town and the town is filled with snow as she is standing behind the plate glass, with a lot of imitation French clothes. What could be more frantic?
Critics talk about you as a comic novelist but always with the implication that this is heavy social comment, social satire and that sort of thing.
Well, there was an old Broadway producer who said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night" and I think he is exactly right. I think satire has as its fatal component an element of meanness. It more or less says, look at what those awful people are doing. I'd never do anything like that, but by pointing them out I hope that you people will change them. Comedy, on the other hand, says, look at the awful things those people are doing. I could be doing the same thing, but for this moment I'm just going to describe it.
It strikes me that you have a lot in common with Mark Twain.
I find that hugely flattering. Nothing could please me more. I see him as immersed in a well-loved American milieu, schizophrenically rural and urban, inclined to bursts of self-pity as the autobiography would suggest and also inclined …
In wild and hairy business schemes …
Wild business schemes which I have been guilty of.
That always failed.
I'm a better businessman than he was.
His always failed.
And also an element of anger and rage disguised as comedy as in "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg." Some of them are more bitter than anything else and the bad side of Twain is something I identify with, too.
One subject that seems to unify all your books is what happens to people who get hung up on an untested idea.
One of the great themes of Irish-American literature, if I can pretend to be Irish-American professionally for a moment, is spoiled romance. Scott Fitzgerald was the master of this and while the elements were in balance he was marvelous. But when it became something as ugly and pusillanimous as The Crack-Up, which to me is one of the most loathsome pieces of writing in the language, you see the Irish-American stance fall apart. What frustrates me when I think about Fitzgerald is it seems, from the evidence of The Last Tycoon, that he was about to go into a thrilling middle phase; having survived drunkenness and shattered romance, he was now going on to be a grown-up writer. We never get to find out about that.
I remember one time meeting Gore Vidal and he sort of stared at me and said, "Funny thing about all you Irish writers, you're all social climbers." And I think that is kind of true, the ease with which the Irish could move in American society once they got going. True of John O'Hara and Scott Fitzgerald for sure.
In many ways, especially in their endings, your last two novels, Something to be Desired and Nobody's Angel, remind me of Henry James. They're similar in the sense of the psychological violence, the cross-currents of violence that leave people wiped out. They come to the place where they see too much, they see too clearly.
I, of course, come to it from a sort of cruder perspective. Partly from being in the horse business, I've spent a lot of time in the Oil Belt and I've gotten to know a lot of petrochemical zillionaires who breed horses and do things like that. I have also gotten to see a lot of people on what was recently the American frontier who are now living in the world of answered prayers. They go down to the 7-Eleven store in helicopters; they go to Scotland and buy the winner of the dog trials to bring back to keep around the house; they jet around the world and things get very, very accelerated for them. All of a sudden they are up against the accumulated values of the civilization to that point, but they have to deal with them because money, drugs, speed, and airplanes have brought them to a point of exhaustion. Sooner than it even did before. They are up against the American dream as it's expressed in western American in a way that makes it something that can't really be survived.
But, when you think of the material James dealt with—nouveau riche Americans. The pattern of Something to be Desired reminded me so much of the pattern of John Marcher in The Beast in the Jungle, who at the end replaces obsession with obsession on top of obsession.
It really is a case of a man discovering that a narcissistic crisis is going to bear penalties which are permanent. I think that the nature of the age, say the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties, has been the indulgence of the "me" figure without suitable precautions. People should understand that, yes, it might be marvelous for you to go on a mission of self-discovery, but understand that people will not necessarily be here when you get back. I don't think Timothy Leary ever told anybody that; I don't even think Ken Kesey told anybody that. I think they more or less said that you paint your bus psychedelic colors and you take off, and when you come back the things that you wanted to be there will still be there. That turns out not to be the case. My book is about that. Its implications are not tragic because the narcissist is not a good tragic figure.
You've said a couple of interesting things about your earlier books; I wonder if you would care to comment about them.
I see the progress of those first three books as technological jumps from each other. The first, The Sporting Club, was meant to be a really controlled acid comic novel of the kind that I was then appreciating. Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh … Your first two or three books represent all that you wanted to do during the previous twenty-eight years … you come out and want to write Hamlet, and then you want to write Don Quixote and then you want to write The Divine Comedy. Then you begin to simmer down a little bit. My second, The Bushwacked Piano, reflected my fascination with picaresque novels. The third book really derives from my interest in surrealism, juxtaposition. Ninety-Two in the Shade has more jagged layering of voices and situations than any book I wrote before or since. When I was writing it I was trying to not write a protagonist-centered novel. I was trying to take a different whack from a different angle and not write a Jamesian novel and not confine the information to what could be seen from a single point of view. And when I look back I realize that I must have gotten so aloft in this project I wonder how I could find the bathroom at the end of the day's work.
That book has been called a giant pun on Hemingway, and your earlier books were compared to Faulkner. Were you in any sense conscious of that element?
That is just absurd. Hemingway is a figure that casts a tremendous shadow for better or for worse. In the United States, it's a cottage industry to produce books about how terrible Ernest Hemingway was. So when Harry Crews or Jim Harrison or I are called Hemingwayesque, it's merely a way of saying, "We don't like this writer."
The criticism that I've read implied that you were writing the anti-Hemingway novel, turning the Hemingway mystique or code of behavior upside down.
I would say that the gist of the Hemingway comparison over the years has been by way of belittling my work. But I don't feel singled out. When I talked with Gore Vidal, he said, "I've been rereading Ernest Hemingway, and he is so scriptural and dull," and I said, "Well, I don't know what it is, Gore, but the people of the world go on wanting to read Ernest Hemingway." He said, "Not this people of the world." I think that is a kind of stance. There is a deep, deep hatred of Ernest Hemingway in the American literary community. And they should just admit it.
But you do admire his work?
I don't like all of his work. Actually, in fact, I don't like maybe more than half of it. But, the thing that is obviously interesting is that Hemingway can acquit himself in prose. Nothing needs to be said in defense of him; his influence will continue to erode his enemies' bastions.
How does a novel come together for you?
There are two ways a novel can come together for anybody. One is answering to a plan. I've found over the years that that doesn't work very well for me. I'll outline everything and then the outline becomes irrelevant. The writing I like the best is when I don't know what I'm doing. This is another way of saying, if I can foresee the shape of a book and if I can foresee the outcome of things I've set in motion, then that is almost a guarantee of its being too limited. I would rather be a sort of privileged reader in that I get to write what I get to read, and chance having to write six or seven hundred pages to produce a two-hundred-page book. Then there is an element of real, deep-down excitement about the process. It is the harder way to write a book, the wilder way. It's the Indian way to write a book.
Can you identify the place where an identifiable voice, a narrator or protagonist, takes over?
Yeah, but that comes up from within. It's like metal. You heat it and you heat it and then light comes out of the metal. You can't just go right up to the thing and say, "Happen." It has to arise from some level of your self that you don't control.
I'm thinking of what Stanley Elkin has often said, that the first thing he hears is a voice and then the next thing that comes to him is an occupation.
Sherwood Anderson, who is by way of being my favorite writer these days, always used to try to get the pitch right. He would keep writing and writing on his first sentence until the pitch was right and then he could write it. That sounds very familiar to me. On the other hand, Peter Taylor, who is a superb writer, said one of the wiliest things that I've heard in a long time. He said that when he begins to hear the voices in a story and the story begins to write itself, he tears it up and throws it away. So there you have it. These things are highly personal. I know lots of fine horse trainers who use systems that are diametrically opposite to one another; they would seem to cancel each other, but they all end up making really fine horses.
Do you think people reading your books tend to confuse you with your characters?
Oh, yes, I'm sure they do, and I'm sure that's partly my doing. I don't think I would have much luck writing a book from a stance or a point of view which I didn't share at all. But you want to separate yourself from your narrow focus in order to broaden the geometry of the book. I used to think in terms of these utterly perverse plans for books. I was once going to write a detective novel in the form of a cookbook. I was hellbent just to shake up the kaleidoscope. I don't feel that way anymore. I find it hard enough to write interestingly and to write well, giving myself all the tools I can handle. I no longer think it is necessary to make it crazy or write a six-hundred-page novel that takes place in two minutes.
A lot of critics and a lot of readers seemed to think Panama was autobiographical. When the narrator says, "I'm working without a net, for the first time," is that you giving away yourself?
First of all, that's a strategy to draw the reader into my web. There is nothing more handy to an author's purposes than to have a reader say, "Aha, now I'm going to find out." Then you can take him anywhere. In fact, it was tonally very much autobiographical; in specific incident, it was partly autobiographical. At the same time I wanted the reader to believe what I was saying, because sometimes one could make up something that would better illustrate an emotional point than the actual thing that happened. All of us have gone into a store and looked at a plastic doll or something that doesn't mean a thing and suddenly been overwhelmingly depressed by it. I can remember when the McDonald people brought out Egg McMuffins and there were Egg McMuffin signs all over Key West. I looked at it and I thought life was not worthwhile anymore if I had to share the planet with Egg McMuffin. Well, that doesn't translate, it's not usable.
But does the experience described in Panama, this narrator who's been in the fast lane and gotten totally burned out, at all reflect what happened to you after Ninety-Two in the Shade and the film?
Yes, I think I got pretty burned out …
You got in big trouble?
Yes, I did. It was big trouble, but it was good trouble, in some ways, because I often revert to being a control freak, as they say. And you know, I really had been such a little monk trying to be a writer for so long that I was sick of that. I saw all of these wonderful social revolutions going on around me and I wasn't part of them. Everybody was having such a wonderful time and I was always in the damn library and I was getting tired of it. And so, in 1973 when suddenly I was on the front page of the New York Times and movie producers wanted to give me money and people wanted me, I just said, "Yes." I said, "I'm going to go do this for a while," and I did and at the end of it, I was pretty played out. It was a bad time to be at the end of it because that was when my family started dying off. That was not a happy time. At the same time, I could hardly repudiate it; you know I wanted, as the girls used to say in the romantic dramas, to live a little. I wanted to go out and do a lot of things and I certainly did. I got out and I saw just about everything that was going on.
And did a little of it, too?
I did all of it.
And you did it in the seventies instead of the sixties. You were a late bloomer.
I still am.
You seem to be a person for whom a rich family life and your work out here on the ranch is very important.
Yes. I'll stick to my guns on that one. You'll find me doing this twenty-five years from now if I'm lucky enough to be alive. I have eliminated a lot of things now, and I really like my family life. I'm married to a wonderful, though girl who knows what she wants to do. I don't have to prop her up, she's just fine, she fights back. It's great. My kids like me.
How many times have you been married?
I've been married three times really, but I was married very, very briefly the second time. I was married for fourteen or fifteen years in my first marriage. Then I was married for eight months or something like that. I've been married for eight or nine years now.
Did the burnout you went through in the seventies have anything to do with the breakup of your first marriage?
I think so … I think so. But it also had sort of run its course. It was not an acrimonious conclusion to a first marriage. I very much admire my first wife. She and I continue to be friends. In fact, she and my present wife are great friends.
Your second wife was an actress, wasn't she?
Margot Kidder. It was just an arbitrary event, has nothing to do with any … The record speaks otherwise so I can't say this, but I'm really kind of a monogamist.
What do you do here on the ranch? Can you tell us a little bit about the cutting horses?
Well, we have a band of broodmares, twenty or twenty-five mares that we use for breeding purposes. Then we run anywhere from 75 to 125 yearling cattle. We raise and sell and break and train cutting horses. Which is actually a bit of a monster; it takes up more time than I want it to.
What is a cutting horse?
In the West, cattle are sorted horseback, at least they always were. Horses are getting replaced by motorcycles and feedlots and weird things, but still a cutting horse has always been a valuable tool to a cowman for sorting cattle. They take diseased cattle out, or nonproductive cows or injured cattle. To go into a herd and bring a single individual out requires an incredibly smart, skillful, highly trained horse and a very knowledgeable rider. That situation has produced a contest animal, just as range roping has produced rodeo roping, and horse breaking has produced bronco riding. That's what we raise here. We have probably one of the better small breeding programs in the nation. We work hard at it. It's not a hobby. We raised the reserve champion of the Pacific Coast in the cutting-horse futurity, we raised the national futurity reserve champion, and I've been Montana champion three years in a row, and we've had the open champion up here.
What relationship does it bear to your writing life?
It keeps me thrown among nonliterary people a big part of my life. I spend a lot of time with cattle feeders and horse trainers and breeders and ranchers, and I like that. It also has made me sort of the village freak in their world. When I rode at the national finals at the Astrodome, it was horrifying. As I rode toward the herd. I could hear these blaring loud-speakers: "Novelist, screenwriter," quack, quack, quack. It is as through this geek has come in to ride, you know. That is kind of disturbing. I'm really not one of the boys in that sense. On the other hand, I can compete against them and beat them and they respect our breeding program.
Does it keep you sane?
Well, it's the outer world. You know you can't go out there and mope around and be narcissistic and artistic in a band of broodmares with colts on their sides who all need shots and worming and trimming and vaccinating.
How do you schedule the two different things?
It goes up and down seasonally. For example there's not a lot to do in the winter. All we can do is feed. And then about now, as soon as things really get going in the spring, it gets to be too much and sometimes I kind of resent it, because I'm working on a book, and I don't want to be out there doing that all day long.
One thing we haven't talked about is the father-son and son-father element in your work.
Yes, I would like to say something about that. It seems funny. My father's been dead for almost a decade and I'm forty-five; it seems I should stop thinking about that. But it has never really seemed to quite go away. When I was a little boy, my father and I were very close and as I got older and he got more obsessed with his business and became more of an alcoholic, he kind of drifted away from me. I think I've been inconsolable about that for a big part of my life. Inconsolable. I mean when I look at a blank piece of paper, all of a sudden Dad comes out. It's there and all I've been able to do is write about it. Try to get it down. I think maybe I got it clear in Panama and I'm not obsessed with it anymore. I'm more obsessed with my relationship to my children and trying to feel that I've made some progress. If I could write as long as I want to, and I can think of maybe ten books that I want to write right now, I think it will be seen that this is sort of the end of that father-son era in my writing.
What about the business of games people play as an organizing principle in your work?
Once you leave subsistence, you enter the world of games, whether you move from subsistence to warfare or you move from subsistence to art. They can all be viewed as a situation where people say, "I'll tell you what, you take that position and I'll take this one …"
And we'll see what happens …
And we'll see how it turns out. For some reason it is quite automatic for me to see that interpretation of what's going on. I don't mean it in a reductive way. When I see games in life I don't say that life is just a game, that's not what I mean at all.
You do tend to write about people who aren't necessarily against the wall economically. They have the means by which to enter the realm of games.
In fact, even ranchers, like the people next door here who just barely make it financially every year, have time to do anything they want to do. You talk to people in Livingston, which is kind of a blue-collar town, and they'll often say, "You've got time to ride horses and do all the things you want to; we're really up against it." Yet they'll pay five thousand dollars for a snowmobile and they'll go buy these campers, but they see that as their necessity material. As opposed to silly stuff like horses, they've got serious stuff like campers and snowmobiles.
It's not a valid point, but one of Reagan's henchmen said, "How can we as a government address the problem of poverty when the number one nutritional problem in the United States is overeating?" And it was a real snarky remark, but at the same time I see a lot of people who say "I have a dishwashing job, and you get to be a writer." They don't have to have that job. And it makes it boring for me to write about dishwashers, because I don't see why they do it or why they want to do it.
I take it at some point you've got a character and you say, let's see what happens to him if we put him in this situation. That's in a sense sort of …
… a game. In fact it seems to me that life is like that. I mean, that makes the Lewis and Clark expedition a game.
That makes democracy a game. Maybe even first-strike capability is a game. I don't know, I mean I think this game idea gradually moves into meaning nothing. It just means life, charged life versus passive life.
But you do see it as an organizing principle and it certainly shows up in your work.
I love play. Playfulness is probably the thing that marks our household.
You said something earlier about this Irish family you came from.
My grandmother was orphaned at thirteen. She was the oldest of the family and she raised all these children, her brothers and sisters. My father came from a small town, and had very little means. He was so astonished he went to Harvard that, to him, life became "before" and "after" Harvard, so we never revisited his origins. But I looked into the stuff. My grandfather's mother died of tuberculosis and malnutrition at twenty-nine with five children. They really didn't have much of a chance. All the girls in the family listed occupation: weaver, address: boardinghouse. You know, all the way down through these records. I just realize how terribly hard they really had it. And then, by the time I knew any of those people, I realized that's why life seemed so exciting to them. They were very optimistic people, and they had it as tough and as mean as you can have it.
You remember the thing that Galbraith said years ago, "There is a vast difference between not having enough and having enough, but there is very little difference between having enough and having too much"? I think that there are a few sectors of this country that really have too much. Certainly the country has too much. That makes me believe that our burning our candle at both ends, while much of the world has no candle, must represent at least the prospects for decline. I sometimes think I see signs of that, though my view of life is not entirely that dour.
Why not? How do you accommodate the discrepancies?
Well, for example, I have a five-year-old daughter who is very excited about the orchard and the horses, the new colts. I don't really think I need to beleaguer her with information right now about Biafra, nor do I think that the activities of a Bernard Goetz underline the reality of her pleasure in new colts. All those things aren't necessarily connected. Some people feel they are, and maybe they're right, you know. It's a sort of religious loftiness that I don't have. I think, though, that the people who do have that sensibility don't seem to ever see anything in the foreground.
Do your books stand, in and of themselves, as a defense against what you see around you that's subject for despair?
Everybody has a responsibility to develop some sort of island theory. I think that life kind of hurtles forward in a massive way for the world, but within it, people invent islands—islands of sanity, is lands of family continuity, islands of professional skills and powers, islands of craft, art, and knowledge. Those islands basically are contributors toward a cure for despair, in ways that we probably cannot quite understand.
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