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Interview by Thomas McGuane with Deborah Houy
SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane Speaks," in Buzzworm, Vol. V, No. 1, January-February, 1993, pp. 32, 34-35.
In the following interview, McGuane discusses his ideas about and activism in environmentalist issues as well as the "green" movement, which he claims is "the first sort of quasi-religious movement which cuts across class and economic lines."
Thomas McGuane—great American novelist, rancher and fly-fisherman—was in Denver recently on a promotional tour for his new novel, Nothing But Blue Skies. McGuane is the author of eight novels, including The Sporting Club, Ninety-Two in the Shade and Keep the Change, as well as several screenplays (The Missouri Breaks, Tom Horn, Rancho Deluxe). Nothing But Blue Skies is set in near-millennial Montana, where members of the "granola underworld" and Wise Use fanatics are beginning to outnumber the cowboys and Indians. McGuane, who is on the board of the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers, spoke with Buzzworm Assistant Editor Deborah Houy.
[Buzzworm:] Your new book is wonderful. It has a lot of environmental …
[McGuane:] Alertness to it, maybe? Good. Like a lot of other people in this country who have experienced the collapse of traditional religion, as well as other kinds of traditional values, my interest in conservation—as I like to call it, to keep from producing more volatility in Montana—my interest in conservation, I guess, has really replaced any other kind of religious presence in my life. I think I've been like that all my life, but I've started to codify that a little bit. I always make that the sort of over-arching spiritual presence of anything that I'm writing.
The kind of personal desperation of Blue Skies' principal character [a Montana businessman/rancher] and other characters in the book—well, it seems to me their escape from that emotional dead end is always seen in the natural world. I think that's been true of my writing since my first book, which came out in the 1960s.
Don't you think religion started as a reaction to the natural world?
I think it derives from observing the natural world. But I think that when you reach another plateau of spiritual bankruptcy—which we have in this country, discovering that entrepreneurial capitalism is not the way to personal happiness—we have to turn to something else. And I think, for a lot of people, it's not going to be traditional religion. And I am one of those people.
Do you think people are going to turn to something else? There's that great scene in Blue Skies where Lance [a Wise Use fanatic] says, "How can we turn to something in Montana that hasn't worked in Russia?"
I think capitalism is our system, and it's as viable a system as exists. I'm not opposed to that. But we have to understand the limitedness of our global environment, and start trying to do what we do in the context of understanding that. I think what we come up against as environmentalists is that kind of societal denial. These things are such banalities now, but an example is the Bush administration denying that there's a hole in the ozone layer … denying that global warming is a perceivable reality. All these things we've been through.
How can we save the environment if we have to keep expanding to keep the economy going? Do you buy Al Gore's argument that we can expand our economy by promoting solar power, for example?
Oh, I buy some of it. My problem is I don't buy any of the existing systems entirely, including Al Gore's. I think we have to learn to do with less. I think excessive materialism derives from spiritual desperation.
Filling the emptiness?
Yes. The other part of the situation—if I could, for example, just raise river consciousness, I think I would be adding my small part to allaying spiritual desperation, and combating materialism. I mean, it's famous that religiously fulfilled people are remarkable in their lack of materialism. And this has always been true.
How do you explain the kind of religion they had at the Republican National Convention?
I can't explain that. I guess—if I took a shot at it—I explain that as a form of addiction. We've been on one drug or another for a long time, and there's always a crash at the end and this period of spiritual desolation. We've just come out of the junk bond era and this wild enthusiastic materialism. We've never really put our shoulders to the wheel of materialism quite like we did in the 1980s. We just said: This is what everybody should be doing. Greed is great. We've never before just sort of stepped up to the plate and said: Let's all do it as hard as we can. And we hit a wall.
A wall, or an abyss? In your essay in Heaven Is Under Our Feet [a collection of essays benefitting the Walden Woods Project], you say: "Abyss-front property is always popular." When you stare into the abyss, what do you see?
Well, that's obviously an extremely ironic comment, and it can't be answered as a straight question.
Speaking of irony, when I read your novels, I never know whether to laugh or cry. Which are you doing while you're writing them?
Both. My earliest heroes were the Russian comic writers, particularly Gogol. And when you're reading Gogol, that's how you're supposed to be responding.
And how do you respond to life?
That way. It's hilarious, and I love the comic part of life, but there's always this kind of gravitas of mortality and delusion.
I always think your novels are a lot like Walker Percy's. Percy said that the question he tries to answer is: Why does man feel so sad in the 20th century? Is that the question you're trying to answer?
Well, I'm very flattered to be even momentarily compared to Walker Percy. Because I'm always being compared—without much point, I think—to Hemingway. I don't get that one at all.
You're much better than Hemingway.
Oh, good. Why is man so sad? Did you see in Forbes, of all things, a special issue called "Why do we feel so bad?" Alfred Kazin had a wonderful piece in there, and Saul Bellow had a very interesting piece. Why are we so sad? Well, I think that we're sad because we've dedicated ourselves to things that do not have a lot of long-term meaning. I just would like to think that my countrymen are smart enough to get onto that. Now there's a whole school of thought that they're too stupid to ever figure that out.
In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank is at a McDonald's restaurant, and he says: "We're down among them now." I assume that's an ironic comment. And there's another line where Frank says he hates the tone of his voice when he's "talking to the salt of the earth."
Yeah. I'd have to see the context. I mean, I would never think that, and you would never think that. And I would never say it, and you would never say it, as a straight remark. Comic conventions have to be understood. To look at it humorlessly would be, really, to reverse its meaning and then make me responsible for it.
Okay. To get back to your point, people aren't following the road to happiness, not because they're too stupid, but because …?
I'm feeling—in this sense—optimistic, that increasingly people will see that what we've been doing for a long time is not going to work anymore. Now there's the doomsday timetable, which says: Yes, but they won't find it out in time. There's also the New Inquisition that says: Yes, but left to their own devices they won't find it out in time, so us cognoscenti are going to tell them what to do. That's the sort of new hipness I find extremely alarming. I am sort of a populist, and I wish that it would go faster, I wish people would understand some of the more permanent values that are available to us, in our backyards. But they weren't put on the planet to satisfy my sense of how rapidly things should occur.
I think there's a growing green movement in this country. And it won't surprise me a bit, if I live to a ripe old age, to find that being the dominant party. I actually believe that. It's the first sort of quasi-religious movement which cuts across class and economic lines. Not perfectly, but it does it better than the Episcopal church, for example. And it's a religious movement. It's a religious and a political movement, and it's very powerful. And it's a good movement, which is important.
Do you think the West is not so much a place as a destination—that what is important is getting there?
There's a great battle, you know, between the New Westerners, the Patty Limerick school—which is very interesting—who say that the West is not a process, it's a place. We know this argument very well. I think it's kind of both.
In Blue Skies, Frank is a Montana rancher who talks about smelling the water in the sagebrush, and he says: "I love it here. At least it's a place to start." I agree, it's a place to start. And then where do you go from there?
Well, I was thinking—vis-à-vis the previous question—about a wonderful thing that John Cheever said. He said that man is a better traveler than a farmer. I don't know if you've read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, but the sort of subtext of that book is that the wanderers are the happy people. You know, the wandering herdsmen of Africa. The Homeric Greek characters that were constantly on the move. The cruelties of the world are really generated by the farmers. Now we're in a time where we absolutely idealize the place on Earth kind of thing, where people don't move.
There's a scene in Nothing But Blue Skies making fun of some academics who still believe that farmers are closer to Mother Earth. Don't you think they are?
Some of them are, but some of them aren't. I have a grain farm up there in Montana—it really belongs to my children. A friend of mine sharecrops this thing—it just fascinates me how much of a businessman he has to be. He spends more time on paperwork than I do?
But don't you think farmers are still closer to the Earth than someone who lives in Manhattan?
Sure. But I think probably what I was doing was undercutting, sort of satirically, the self-righteousness, the hubristicness that fills the agricultural newspapers.
The Wise Use movement?
Well, not only that, but just the general chauvinism of farmers and ranchers—it's almost unbearable sometimes. And the fact that they look out from their piece of ground, and they see somebody with an out-of-state license plate and just assume a moral superiority, I have to fight that back a little bit.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead said that problems in modern society stem from the fact that for 99 percent of human history, we've lived in tribes of 30 people or less. And now we don't. Would you agree with that?
Just on my little book tour, I'm beginning to feel that independent bookstores are sort of tribal centers of some kind. I realize this doesn't stand up to real scrutiny, except that individual books collect societies around them. And particular kinds of bookstores come to be little societies, especially in urban areas.
But that's a self-selected tribe. That's the amazing thing about tribes—you have to learn to get along with everyone.
Whether you want to be in that tribe or not. I don't think we have tribes anymore. I think we have a lot of nostalgia for tribes. I remember vividly in the 1960s how everyone was searching for this tribalism, which was a little farfetched.
Who are your favorite writers?
Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Saul Bellow.
Kurt Vonnegut says that most people can't use information for anything except entertainment. Do you agree?
No. Charles Olson says that sometimes people want tablets brought down from the mountain, and sometimes they want to go to the beach.
What are you going to do next? Another novel?
No. I plan to go get Mama, and the horse trailers, and be gone for about ten years.
This section contains 2,010 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)