Interviews

Thomas McGuane, The Art of Fiction No. 89

Interviewed by Sinda Gregory, Larry McCaffery

Thomas McGuane’s fiction projects a volatile, highly personalized mixture of power, vulnerability, and humor. His first three novels—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—while never achieving mass-market appeal, earned McGuane considerable critical attention: Bushwhacked won the Rosenthal Award, Ninety-Two was nominated for the National Book Award, and all three works were widely and favorably reviewed. In addition to his novels, McGuane has also written screenplays: The Missouri Breaks, Rancho Deluxe, Ninety-Two in the Shade, Tom Horn. During the mid-seventies, McGuane’s tempestuous personal life—drinking, some drugs, two divorces—won him the nickname of “Captain Berserko.” From this tempest, McGuane produced his fourth novel, Panama (1978), his most surreal and nakedly autobiographical work to date. Panama’s Chester Pomeroy is an exhausted, artistically depleted, emotionally wrecked rock musician who resolves to come clean with himself and the world, to work, for the first time, “without a net.” The critical response to Panama was overwhelmingly negative, not merely lacerating the novel, but also attacking the promising young novelist for having “gone Hollywood.” Although McGuane continued to believe Panama his best work, he was troubled by the vehemence of the criticism and his next novel did not appear for five years. Both Nobody’s Angel (1983) and his latest novel, Something to Be Desired (1985), reveal changes in McGuane’s craft; less rambunctious in their humor, with more subtle textures of characterization and a tighter control of language, these last two works indicate an attempt at a quieter, more evocative kind of verbal power.

Since the mid-seventies, McGuane and his wife, Laurie, have lived just outside Livingston, Montana, where their ranch has been a focal point for a burgeoning artistic community—people like William Hjorstberg, Peter Fonda, and the late Richard Brautigan have made this western town into an enclave of diverse talents. The McGuanes’ is a working ranch, and they are justifiably proud of their spread, where they raise and train cutting horses, some to be sold for ranch work, the best to be used in rodeo competition. Tall, muscular, rugged, McGuane has been the Montana cutting horse champion three years in a row, and, at forty-six, exudes a powerful physical presence. He is the kind of man who knows how to do things, who studies how things work, who can talk with equal assurance and knowledge about guns, horses, books, boats, and hot peppers from Sonora. As he took us on a tour of his ranch and we talked about water problems, fishing, and his fiction, we got a sense of McGuane’s approach to things: When you find something you want to do, whether it’s learning to tie casting flies or writing a novel, you work at it systematically. That you’d want to do it well, that you’d be willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to that end, goes without saying. As we sat together over coffee with the busy, cheerful household buzzing around us, McGuane seemed a man at peace, emerged hale and whole from a difficult time of personal and professional upheaval. It was to this period of turmoil that we addressed our first question.

 

INTERVIEWER

Has the personal storm really passed?

THOMAS McGUANE

The storm has passed in the sense that my steering linkage has been restored. A storm system is still in effect, though, and in fact if it weren’t I’d want to change my life because you can get to a point where the risk factor has been overregulated. That’s an alarming condition for me, a ghastly thing. 

INTERVIEWER

Without going into all the particulars, could you talk a bit about what you feel, in retrospect, was going on in the mid-seventies—the period of stumbling down the yellow line, when you were known as “Captain Berserko”? 

McGUANE

During the early part of that time I had been successful in creating for myself a sheltered situation in which to function in this very narrow way I felt I wanted to function, which was to be a literary person who was not bothered very much by the outside world. My twenties were entirely taken up with literature. Entirely. My nickname during that period was “the White Knight,” which suggests a certain level of overkill in my judgment of those around me.

INTERVIEWER

What sorts of things had led you to develop this white-knight image?

McGUANE

Fear of failure. I was afflicted with whatever it takes to get people fanatically devoted to what they’re doing. I was a pain in the ass. But I desperately wanted to be a good writer. My friends seem to think that an hour and a half effort a day is all they need to bring to the altar to make things work for them. I couldn’t do that. I thought that if you didn’t work at least as hard as the guy who runs a gas station then you had no right to hope for achievement. You certainly had to work all day, everyday. I thought that was the deal. I still think that’s the deal. 

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that you had a brush with death in a car accident that shook you up pretty badly. The usual, maybe simpleminded, explanation is that you suddenly realized that you could have died there without ever having given yourself a chance to live.

McGUANE

That explanation is not so simpleminded. I still don’t know exactly what it meant to me at the time. I do know that I lost the power of speech for a while. And I had something like that realization going through my mind. It was outside Dalhart, Texas. I was driving fast, one hundred and forty miles an hour, and there was this freezing rain on the road that you couldn’t see, so when I pulled out to pass, suddenly life was either over or it wasn’t. I thought it was over. The guy I was driving with said, “This is it,” and all of a sudden it did appear that it was the end: there were collisions and fence posts flying and pieces of car body going by my ears. It would have been as arbitrary an end as what’s happening to a friend of ours who’s now dying in a hospital of cancer, or our friend who has an awful neurological disease, or a kid who chases the baseball out in the street. You believe all this stuff, but then suddenly you’re standing in the middle of it with the chance to choose and it seems like a miracle or a warning that you’ve been spared this time but you’d better get your life together. I remember thinking along these lines, but my thoughts were so overpowering that I couldn’t speak for a week, even to ask for something to eat.

INTERVIEWER

Pomeroy says at the beginning of Panama that he’s going to be “working without a net.” It’s tempting to read that novel as your attempt to work through some of your own turmoils from that period. If you were up there, taking the risk to expose yourself, the highly negative, even personally vicious, reviews of Panama must have hurt a lot.

McGUANE

The whole Panama episode really jarred me in terms of my writing because that was one time I had consciously decided to reveal certain things about myself. I was stunned by the bad reception of Panama; it was a painful and punishing experience. The lesson that I got from the reviewers was: Don’t ever try to do that again. And it was odd to watch reviewers incorrectly summarize the story, then attack their own summaries. It was like watching blind men being attacked by their seeing-eye dogs. But then, I look back at when John Cheever published Bullet Park, which was the advent of the good Cheever as far as I’m concerned, and the critics and public crucified him over that book. Afterwards he went into an alcoholic spiral. People don’t understand how much influence they can actually have on a writer, how much a writer’s feelings can be hurt, how much they can deflect his course when they raise their voices like they did over highly personal books like Panama or Bullet Park.

INTERVIEWER

If it’s any consolation, I feel Panama is your best book.

McGUANE

I think it may be my best too. In the middle of all this outcry, I’d get the book out and read stuff to myself and say, “I can’t do any better than this!” I really do love Panama. But I’d also have to admit that right now, if I were driven to write another novel like that I wouldn’t even try to find a publisher for it. It simply wouldn’t be published. I’d be writing it to put in my closet upstairs.

INTERVIEWER

So what effect did the Panama experience have on your work?

McGUANE

Its first effect was to confirm my desire to write a book that was, in a traditional way, more shapely than anything I had done before. Actually, I’d been wanting to do that for a long time. That at least partially explains the architecture of Nobody’s Angel. The novel I’m working on now picks up from Panama more than from any other point. Importantly it’s not a book in the first person, which made Panama completely different from anything else I’ve ever done, so it doesn’t sound and look like Panama. But Panama is still the last piece of growing tissue that I’ve been grafting from.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of its flights of poetic language, its surrealism, and other formal features, Panama is probably your most extreme novel to date. And yet these features seem entirely appropriate in capturing the sensibility of its crazed narrator, Pomeroy. Was creating this voice and perspective especially difficult for you or did your identification with him make things easier, in a way?

McGUANE

It was very difficult. I invented a word once a long time ago and I was always going to write a book that could be described with this word. The word was “joco-splenetic.” Panama was to be my first joco-splenetic novel. What was especially difficult about that book was that I knew that in certain parts I wanted Pomeroy to be absolutely lugubrious. I saw him as somebody who would live quite happily in a Gogol novel, a laughter-through-tears guy. I knew that his emotions are frequently “unearned,” that the kind of hang-over quality in which he lives produces fits of uncontrolled weeping. I’m not saying that the book isn’t sentimental in that technical sense, but I also felt that this tissue of distance that I created between myself and Chester was adequate for people to understand this and to see the book for what it is. For people who don’t like the book, when poor Pomeroy goes off into one of his spirals, they think, “What right does he have to this?” The point is that he has no right—that’s what’s interesting about him. 

INTERVIEWER

This sounds like the same sense of moral indignation that seemed to be directed at you during the mid-seventies—the sense that here’s this talented person who has everything going for him and yet here he is taking all these drugs and doing all these bizarre, self-destructive things.

McGUANE

There are those who question the right of a wealthy person to commit suicide. A person who doesn’t have enough to eat has the right to commit suicide but not a person whose income is over fifty thousand dollars a year. It’s as if wealthy or talented people have no right to be miserable. So in this age of cocaine we just expand this principle and say, “My God, look at all that Chester’s got” (half of which is made up: his automobile, his house, they don’t even exist). The idea that he’s so miserable that he can’t name his dog and can’t get his true love back, that doesn’t count in this strangely economic-based view that only certain people are entitled to their unhappiness.

INTERVIEWER

I gather that in some ways you transformed some of your real-life feelings for your wife Laurie into the figure of Catherine.

McGUANE

Yes, in many ways Catherine became Laurie. I saw Pomeroy going downhill in various ways and, being madly in love with Laurie at the time, the most miserable thing I could imagine for him (or me) was to lose this person he loved so much. That’s one of the reasons I think there’s a specific emotional power in that ending, because I was going through Pomeroy’s loss, imaginatively, as I wrote it. I felt that the coda to all the pain in that book had to be that loss, but it was so absolutely agonizing that, unlaminated to something better, it was nihilistic. And I’m not a nihilist and didn’t want this book to be nihilistic.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you have that last scene with the father, where Chester finally seems to acknowledge him and you write, “There was more to be said and time to say it”? 

McGUANE

Partly, although this business about what he’s going to do about his father is present throughout the book. At that point in the end, when he’s hit absolute rock bottom, the question becomes, does he bounce or does he flatten out and lie there. In my opinion he bounced. Slightly.

INTERVIEWER

All five of your books seem to have distinctive stylistic features. Nobody’s Angel seems to be almost understated in comparison with your earlier books. Could you talk about the specific evolutions your prose has undergone?

McGUANE

I started my career distinctly and single-mindedly with the idea that I wanted to be a comic novelist. I had studied comic literature from Lazarillo de Tormes to the present. The twentieth-century history of comic writing had prepared me to write in the arch, fascist style that I used in The Sporting Club. Then the picaresque approach was something I tried to express in The Bushwhacked Piano, although I’ve now come to feel that the picaresque form is no longer that appropriate for writing; writers are looking for structures other than that episodic, not particularly accumulative form—at least I am. Ninety-Two in the Shade was the first of the books in which I felt I brought my personal sense of epochal crisis to my interest in literature. It’s there that you find this crackpot cross between traditional male literature and The Sid Caesar Show and the preoccupation with process and mechanics and “doingness” that has been a part of American literature from the beginning—it’s part of Moby Dick. The best version of it, for my money, is Life on the Mississippi, which is probably the book I most wish I’d written in American literature. When I got to Ninety-Two I was tired of being amusing; I like my first two books a lot, but I tried to put something like a personal philosophy in Ninety-Two in the Shade. That book also marked the downward progress of my instincts as a comic novelist. Starting with Ninety-Two I felt that to go on writing with as much flash as I had tried to do previously was to betray some of the serious things I had been trying to say. That conflict became one that I tried to work out in different ways subsequently. The most drastic attempt was in Panama, which I wrote in the first person in this sort of blazing confessional style. In terms of feeling my shoulder to the wheel and my mouth to the reader’s ear, I have never been so satisfied as I was when I was writing that book. I didn’t feel that schizophrenia that most writers have when they’re at work. That schizophrenia was in the book instead of between me and the book.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t seem to have lost your comic instincts, but I sensed in Panama a change in the kind of humor you were creating: a move away from satire, which characterized your earlier books, towards something deeper, more painful. There’s a line in Panama that seems relevant here, where Chester describes “the sense of humor that is the mirror of pain, the perfect mirror, not the mirror of satirists.”

McGUANE

I now agree with that Broadway producer who said that satire is what closes on Saturday night.

INTERVIEWER

Patrick in Nobody’s Angel and Pomeroy both lose the woman in the end, but that loss somehow seemed more inevitable in Panama than in Nobody’s Angel, where you appeared to give Patrick the chance to learn and change. I was a bit surprised you didn’t devise a happy ending for Patrick. 

McGUANE

There’s a difference in those two losses. In Pomeroy’s case, it is a little bit as though there has simply been too much water under the bridge for him to ever get Catherine back. There is a momentum that has become so black that current conduct can’t turn things around. With Patrick the ending has more to do with this notion of the outsider or stranger, which has fascinated me for a long time and is reflected in the book. Patrick’s situation is the modern situation: the adhesion of people to place has been lost. This can be just ruinous. The result can truly be, as in Wuthering Heights, the ill wind that blows across the heath, a thing you can’t beat—you either get out and do something else or the conditions will destroy you. I didn’t think Patrick could win his war because his basics are fouled up, so he had to accept himself as an isolato. This isn’t a very happy ending, certainly not one I would wish upon a dog, but it was the one I felt had inevitability.

INTERVIEWER

Does this fascination with the figure of the outsider and the adhesion of family identity to place derive from your own family background, which like Patrick’s, is Irish?

McGUANE

The outsider-stranger-bystander has always intrigued me in regard to my own family history. My family were all Irish immigrants originally and so I became interested in Irish history and traveled a lot in Ireland, which brought things even closer to home. People in Ireland feel like outsiders in their own country because the English have owned things for so long that the Irish consider themselves as living in a massive servants’ quarters for the British Isles. When they immigrated to the East Coast (my family went to Massachusetts), they saw themselves as an enclave of outsiders in a Yankee, Protestant world. My parents moved to the Midwest, and I can assure you that, whatever we thought we were, we did not consider ourselves to be Midwesterners. We saw ourselves as Catholics surrounded by Protestant Midwesterners, and when we wanted to feel close to something, we went back to our old world in Massachusetts. When I moved to Montana in my twenties, I felt myself to be an outsider in still another world. The only thing that seems reassuring is that most Montanans feel the same way—they’re mostly from somewhere else and their history is so recent that to be one of the migrants is really to be one of the boys. You can see this same feeling developing in F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m sure that no one in his family felt like they were “from” Minnesota, which is one reason he was drawn to the East Coast and why so much of the magic of his fiction is his famous method of “looking through the window.” And yet that mental quality, the glassy distance, is behind his craziness and his alcoholism. The vantage point of most authentic modern fiction is dislocation. 

INTERVIEWER

Your first three novels are all extraordinarily ambitious works in that each of them links the heroes and action with a vision of America at large. But in both Panama and Nobody’s Angel, the move seems to be more inward, more personal. Was this a conscious shift?

McGUANE

The Sporting Club was really the last genuinely political book I’ve ever done, at least political in an overt way. It was meant to be a kind of anarchist tract. I was reading a lot of political writers at the time, especially Kropotkin, and I was very self-conscious about using the situation of the novel as a political paradigm.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t Ninety-Two in the Shade overtly political? You seem to be using Skelton there to suggest a deeper crisis in America that is signaled in the very opening line of the book: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea . . .”

McGUANE

“ . . . why we are having all this trouble with our republic.” Yes, I was using Skelton very deliberately in the way you’re suggesting, but I was more interested in the inner, personal dynamics than in the larger, political implications. There’s another line from the book that seems very appropriate to the political issue you’re raising: “It was the age of uneasy alliances.” But we’re not in that age any more, which is one reason my fiction has shifted its focus. We’re currently in the age of no alliances. We’re in the age of shake hands with the Lebanese and give their neighbors a bomber so they can blow their asses off the planet. We’re in the age of the most sordid possible political cynicism. We’re in the age of foreign aid to death squads.

INTERVIEWER

I would assume that these sorts of attitudes make moving inward, away from the larger political arena, more attractive.

McGUANE

Right, and that’s one of the reasons that Ninety-Two in the Shade is such a strangely public book compared to my last two. It was a kind of New Age book that reflected my sense that I was caught up in some huge cultural change that was taking place in this country. It was a book about private survival. You have your skills and your mate and your place, and you’re aloof from an obviously suicidal society. The chief metaphor for the book should have been bomb shelters, with people storing water and tinned food. My father and I had very much of an adversarial relationship that is unresolved to this very day. I remember going to see a bomb shelter with him back in the fifties; one of our neighbors had built one of them. It was a very elegant bomb shelter and we walked around and looked at it; my father was a very direct guy, so when we came up he was filled with thoughts about this thing—the main thought being. Should I build one for my family?—and he pondered this, and I was very interested in what he was going to say. Finally he said, “I think we’ll just stay up on the ground and take our lumps.” Boy oh boy, did that ever become a model for future reflections on my part! It was a key point in our dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

Skelton obviously doesn’t follow your father’s advice—he wants to find a shelter, a personal survival module.

McGUANE

Right, which made Ninety-Two in the Shade a rebellious book for me to write because I’d built this novel about a guy who obviously wasn’t thinking in terms of staying above ground and taking his lumps. He’s at the fork in the road and he chooses to construct a place where he can be safe. Right now, though, the progress of my fiction is towards my father’s point of view, to not build a shelter, to just stay up here and fight it out.

INTERVIEWER

The father-son relationship is constantly a major issue in your fiction. Is some of the tension of these fictional relationships autobiographically based?

McGUANE

This is plainly so. If you’d been around me while I was growing up you’d have clearly seen that my relationship with my father was going to be a major issue in my life. My father was a kid who grew up rather poor (his father had worked for the railroad) and who had a gift for English; he wound up being a scholar-athlete who went to Harvard, where he learned some of the skills that would enable him to go on and become a prosperous businessman, but where he also learned to hate wealth. My father hated people with money and yet he became one of those people. And he was not only an alcoholic but a workaholic, a man who never missed a day of work in his life. He was a passionate man who wanted a close relationship with his family, but he was a child of the Depression and was severely scarred by that, to the point where he really drove himself and didn’t have much time for us. So while he prepared us to believe that parents and children were very important, he just never delivered. And we were all shattered by that: my sister died of a drug overdose in her middle twenties; my brother has been a custodial case since he was thirty; as soon as my mother was given the full reins of her own life, after my dad died, she drank herself to death in thirty-six months. I’m really the only one still walking around, and I came pretty close to being not still walking around. It all goes back to that situation where people are very traditional in their attitudes about the family, a family that was very close (we had this wonderful warm place in Massachusetts where my grandfather umpired baseball games and played checkers at the fire station), but then they move off to the bloody Midwest where they all go crazy. I’ve tried to work some of this out in my writing, and my younger sister tried to work it out in mental institutions. She was the smartest one of us all, an absolute beauty. She died in her twenties.

INTERVIEWER

There’s an interesting structural relationship between Nobody’s Angel and Ninety-Two in the Shade that seems relevant here. In Angel, Patrick’s father is dead, preserved within that Montana ice floe. In Ninety-Two, Skelton lives in a fuselage, and the father figure is preserved, offstage, as part of his internal life. Was this a consciously designed motif?

McGUANE

Let me answer that one as candidly as I can. When I started Nobody’s Angel I was so tired of the pain of the father-and-son issue that I didn’t want it to infuse yet another book. But for it not to be present at all would have falsified it. So I did what religion does: I simply canonized one of the characters and got him the hell out of the book.

INTERVIEWER

Your characters at times seem to be trying to build a better model of society within their families than they find out in the society at large.

McGUANE

The way I see it now is that you either make a little nation and solve its historical and personnel problems within the format of your own household—accepting all the mistakes that you’ve made, all the ones your parents have made, all that your children make, and all the mistakes your country has made—and you win that one, or you lose the only war worth fighting. That’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to study this problem in my writing, intensifying it for the purposes of art, and in my own life. Moreover, as soon as you step out of this personally constructed world and, say, drive into town or stand out on I-90 and watch our nation cycle through these placeless arteries, it’s there that you confront the true horror of the other option. The America you see in public is the monster who crawls up to the door in the middle of the night and must be driven back to the end of the driveway. That’s the thing that scares me to death. We’ve all seen these nameless, faceless people out there, and when we track one of them back to wherever they came from we sometimes find that this is the one person who can pull a breach-birth calf without ever killing the mother cow, or the guy who goes over the hill and does beautiful fencing even though nobody is watching, the valued neighbor who will get up in the middle of the night to help you get your water turned back on. But for some reason in this country, at a certain point this man turns into this absolute human flotsam whom we make fun of when we see him standing in front of Old Faithful. This syndrome is scary to me because I’m not sure which team is going to win. Are we really just going to rinse, like the third cycle in a washing machine, from the Atlantic to the Pacific? If so, why don’t we get into The Whole Earth Catalogue mentality, really save some energy, and just shoot ourselves? I had that sense of family security with my grandparents, and then I saw the results in my own family of deciding that all that was worthless. My dad had no use for it, felt that people who valued it were just dragging their heels.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve talked a lot about your father and his family. What about your mother’s side of the family?

McGUANE

Actually, I derive myself matrilineally, and all the photographs you see around here are of my mother’s family. There are two kinds of Irish people—one is the kind that doesn’t say anything and the other is the kind that talks all the time. Well, my mother’s family were talkers and my father’s were the silent types. My father’s father was a fine old railroad Irishman, and my father couldn’t wait to get away from him. So we saw very little of my father’s father. In fact—this is something I’ve slowly been reconstructing—my grandmother died fairly young and then my grandfather remarried a woman from Prince Edward’s Island; she just loved the old man, and when he died she more or less didn’t invite my family to the funeral. My feeling is that she went back up to Prince Edward’s Island and turned down my father’s offer to buy her a house or something. Firmly. She felt that the way my father did things and the way he had treated his own father was pretty shabby. So he died, she buried him, and she split.

INTERVIEWER

Did you derive some of your own instincts for storytelling from your mother’s fast-talking Irish relatives? 

McGUANE

Very much so. My maternal grandmother’s house was always full of people who valued wisecracks and uncanny stories. And we had a real history there. I’m more homesick for that than for anything that ever happened to us in Michigan. My mother was so attached to her family that the moment we got out of school she’d pack us off back to Massachusetts until school started in the fall, and my father resented that tremendously.

INTERVIEWER

Was it your father who got you interested in hunting and fishing?

McGUANE

He set those out as great ideals, but generally when it came time to go out and do them, he never showed up. We went out enough so that I wished we’d do it more, but then there’d be some other grown-up who really wanted to go, and my father wouldn’t like that because he felt he should be doing that but didn’t have time. So he’d say, “Well, if he had his nose to the grindstone, like he should have, he wouldn’t have time to take off and go fishing on Lake Erie with you.” But one way or another, I was tremendously involved in hunting and fishing all the time. I had a .22 and I was gone every chance I could get, out in the woods or on the lake or, if the lake froze over, I’d be out on the ice miles from shore. That was my childhood.

INTERVIEWER

What is there about developing sporting skills that seems so satisfying to you? 

McGUANE

I’m not sure I fully know. When I’m involved in these things myself, I feel like I’m being asked a lot of questions. Tools of elegance and order, developed and proven in the sporting life, are everywhere useful. Right now, for the first time in my life, I feel like there’s something wrong about doing sports just for recreation—if it’s just that, I don’t want to do them. Their purpose is more than getting away from the pressures of work. Also, part of my interest in developing specific skills is surely to counter the sense of fragmentation and regret that crops up. With horses, I feel I’ve discovered some ancient connection, as though in some earlier life horses were something that mattered to me. The close study of all animals teaches us that we’re not the solitary owners of this planet. As my horses procreate, and as they search for food and companionship and try to grow up and face one another’s death, we see these things and it’s very moving. You can’t be around it to the degree that Laurie and I are and just say, “We’ll synthesize our food and we’ll get rid of these other species because they take up a lot of land.” I don’t know what that has to do with how we own the earth and own the universe, but in a way I feel religious about it. It’s not an accident that there are these sentient creatures other than human beings out there. And we’re not supposed to populate the universe without them. We’re seriously and dangerously deprived every time we lose one of these animals.

INTERVIEWER

Nicholas Payne in The Bushwhacked Piano says, “I’ve made silliness a way of life.” Was “pranksterism” part of your own life as a kid?

McGUANE

Yes, it was, but there’s more to it than that. We have chances for turning the kaleidoscope in a very arbitrary way. I wanted to be a military pilot at one time and came that close to joining the Naval Air Corps until I got into Yale, which I didn’t expect to happen. One of the practical things they teach combat fliers is that you can only reason through so much, and therefore in a combat situation if at a certain point you feel you can’t reason through a situation, then the thing you must do is anything, so long as you do something. Even in the Navy, with its expensive equipment and its highly predicated forms of action, you are told to just splash something off and do it! Doing something arbitrary or unexpected is probably the only way you’re going to survive in a combat situation. Game theoreticians have made this an important factor. The first strike is really very close to pranksterism. Pranks, the inexplicability of comedy, and lateral moves at the line of scrimmage can sometimes be the only way you can move forward. In silliness and pranks, there is something very great. It’s in that scene I created in Panama—the decision to jump off the diving board not knowing if there’s water in the pool. Sometimes that’s not a dopey thing to do but a very smart thing. It’s the first strike.

INTERVIEWER

In your more recent books, your central characters are more likely to avoid confrontation.

McGUANE

I hope it’s a maturity on the author’s part. The growing awareness of consequences is something Nobody’s Angel reflects and it also reflects what is appropriate to Patrick’s stage in life. There were things that Billy the Kid was able to do by the age of twenty-one that would not have been appropriate to Pat Garrett at the age of forty-one. And as we will our way through the world, we begin by laying about ourselves with a heavy sword. It’s one thing to jump off a diving board into a possibly empty pool at a certain stage in your life, but that same person with three children is not doing something good. A man with three young children who dives into a pool not knowing if there’s water in it is someone to be despised. Patrick has moved into another part of his life, and he’s dealt with some inadequacies in his life—maybe he shouldn’t have been diving into pools when his sister was falling apart, for example, and maybe he’s reviewing that. I wanted to suggest that there’s remorse in him.

INTERVIEWER

You said just a minute ago that you wanted to be a Navy pilot. Hadn’t you decided that you wanted to be a writer by the time you were in college?

McGUANE

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that that was not a very practical idea. So I was constantly trying to think of a profession I could pursue and still write. As a kid I had always associated being a writer with leading an adventurous life. I used to read William Beebe, Ernest Thompson Seton, W. H. Hudson, writers like that. That’s really a key thing for me: I associated a life of action and a life of thought as being the writer’s life. But I didn’t do much writing when I was a kid. I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to do any writing. Then when I went away to boarding school there was a good friend of mine who was very strange and marvelous, and who became a kind of literary guide for me—Edmund White, a fine writer actually beyond category. Interestingly enough, back in school we all knew he was gay, and remember, this was the benighted fifties. A lot of his friends were athletes and I was this macho punk, but we were all friends and nobody cared. Ed was not only a good writer at that time but he was also a scholar. He had read Proust by the age of twelve, and he used to give me reading lists. A lot of my early readings were things he had me read, mainly the decadent works: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Lautréamont, Wilde, Proust. When I got to college, I kept reading but I was also trying to figure out what I could do. I tried everything: I was a premed student at one time, and a prelaw student, though I was mostly an English major. But I didn’t really know what I was going to do to survive.

INTERVIEWER

As a graduate student, you studied playwriting at Yale Drama School. How did this contribute to your ear for dialogue?

McGUANE

That’s when off Broadway was very wild, interesting, exciting. There were all those good young playwrights and the theater of the absurd was a true force. Reading those European and American playwrights and seeing their stuff, to the extent that it was possible, had a lot of effect on the way I eventually wrote fiction. Dialogue is very important to me because I’ve always loved it in novels. Lots of people read novels racing from dialogue to dialogue. In fact, I would like to really compress the prose in a novel, without getting too arch about it. Some people, like Manuel Puig, have written novels almost entirely in dialogue, but it gets to be a little too much sometimes since readers need to know where they are a bit. At any rate, writing dialogue is probably the best thing I do, and I’m always trying to work up an aesthetic for my fiction that will acknowledge that fact. Of course, Hemingway was really a great dialogue writer, it’s one of the reasons we read him. Dialogue is a very useful tool to reveal things about people, and novels are about people and about what they do to each other. That’s what novels are for. They’re not pure text for deconstructionists. One day, that will be clear again. 

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk a bit about the background of your first two books? 

McGUANE

I went from Yale to Europe to live in Spain, and while I was over there I worked on an early version of The Bushwhacked Piano, which was really my apprentice work. I was always working on novels at Yale and there were parts of that book that I had worked on for years. I sent it off to Stanford, on the basis of which I won a Stegner fellowship. The Sporting Club was really my fourth or fifth novel. By the time it came out I had actually been writing for ten years, with most of my material going right into the waste basket, where it belonged.

INTERVIEWER

In addition to the playwrights, who were the writers you were reading during that period who had some influence on the direction your work was taking?

McGUANE

I remember that Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano just floored me. Incidentally, I consider that to be quite a funny book; a lot of it isn’t funny, of course, but its perverted energy is obviously akin to comedy. Fielding, Sterne, Joyce, Gogol and Twain were heroes. So were Machado de Assis, Thomas Love Peacock, George Borrow. There has never been a period when I was not reading Shakespeare. I loved Paul Bowles when I was just starting to write, and I loved Walter van Tilburg Clark. Stephen Crane seemed to me a fabulous writer, especially the stories. Knut Hamsun, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Muriel Spark, Henry Green, William Eastlake, Walker Percy. You know, Barry Hannah and I were talking, and we agreed that The Moviegoer is one of those books that, for a lot of writers, was looked at like The Sun Also Rises was by writers back in the twenties.

INTERVIEWER

In what sense?

McGUANE

Percy’s insouciance. He seemed to retain passion, gentlemanliness, and this cheerfully remote quality about the things going on. It was exciting, like brand-new life. I still think just as much of that book today as when I first read it. It seems like one of the real ground-breaking books of the last thirty years. Huck Finn continues to be a book whose range of sadness and funniness, whose pure narrative momentum, is hard to get around. Unfortunately, it’s become canonized and emasculated. Hemingway’s stories. I don’t know anyone who can honestly read In Our Time and say that there’s not something wonderful in it or not be tremendously moved by that incantatory style. A Farewell to Arms is a tremendous novel. And I remember that Henderson the Rain King was another book that floored me when I first read it. The same for the Snopes trilogy. 

INTERVIEWER

Writers like Pynchon and Barth are conspicuously absent from your list . . .

McGUANE

Actually I like their work, but if you compare them to Bellow or Mailer you start discovering their deficiencies. Barth and Pynchon are clearly brilliant writers, but that quality of what the Spanish would call “caste”—I’m not sure it’s in those two guys. I guess I’m basically simpleminded as a reader. For example, I have no interest whatsoever in Borges. He just doesn’t do anything for me, even though I would concur with the most positive statements that people make about his writing. He’s just not for me. Neither is Cortázar.

INTERVIEWER

What about Márquez?

McGUANE

Márquez is unbelievably good. I just read The Autumn of the Patriarch and, God, it’s fabulous stuff—I almost prefer it to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Márquez is breathtaking because you feel that down to the little harsh details, he’s right on. Márquez and Günter Grass both present this tremendous congestion of life as well as more abstract issues. Márquez and Grass are two of the few writers who can engage their whole monstrous personalities in the projected world of their novels. Faulkner could do it. Melville did it. Mark Twain did it. They make the New England Renaissance look like an aviary. I am fascinated by this ability, and in fact I hope to get some of it into my own work. My biggest problem with the novel is whether or not I’m producing a sturdy enough tissue for that tension, since it’s so miserably low in its lows and in its highs it approaches goofiness. I’m trying to find a way to avoid trivializing the serious stuff without undermining the comedy of it.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any contemporary American writers you especially admire or feel affinities with?

McGUANE

Nobody very surprising, I suspect: I like Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Harry Crews, Don Carpenter, Don DeLillo, Jim Harrison, Joan Didion. DeLillo has categorized a certain kind of fiction in a way that seems absolutely definitive: “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard fiction.” There are a lot of good writers who belong to that group—a lot of recent women writers are in that school, for example, and many of them are tremendously good. At the same time, writers with broad streaks of fancifulness or writers who have trained themselves on Joyce or Gogol, as I did, may feel a little reproached when we compare ourselves to these writers who write about the bitter, grim, domestic aspects of living. You feel, gee, I’m pretty frivolous compared to these serious people. Sometimes this can be a misleading reproach because you may decide that you need to change your subject matter if you’re going to be a serious writer.

INTERVIEWER

Have comparisons to Hemingway been an albatross for you?

McGUANE

There’s a lot I like about Hemingway’s writing, so when people say there are Hemingwayesque aspects to my writing, what am I supposed to say? Within the last year, writers as disparate as Cheever, Malamud, and Carver have been accused of Hemingwayism. When people say that, they’re attacking you. Hemingway lived a kind of life that I would like to have lived, although I’ve never identified with him closely. I see Hemingway as being a real American Tory, the sort of guy I couldn’t have gotten along with, and I see a cruelty and heaviness in his personality. When I was growing up, I was very much in rebellion against the Midwestern, Protestant values he represents to me, so a lot of these Hemingway comparisons have seemed a mile off. His world view was much more bleak than mine, more austere, and his insistence on his metaphysical closed system was very deterministic, fanatically expressed. Still I have to say that there was a time when I would read his stuff and it seemed wonderful. I read books of his today that I still love. But when I look at a lot of his writing now I come across that clipped Hemingway rhythm, and it can have an appalling, scriptural feeling to it. At his best he was a fabulous writer. I just read an interview with Heinrich Böll and he acknowledged that Hemingway’s surface was a carpentry that you just couldn’t walk by without acknowledging. Any writer who says he has walked by without noticing it is a liar.

INTERVIEWER

Your presentation of female characters seems to have changed distinctly for the better over the years.

McGUANE

First of all, I would like to concur with Malcolm Lowry in saying that a writer is under no obligation to create great characters. Nevertheless, part of the explanation for my portrayal of women in my earlier works has to do with my trying to find my way through a problem that a lot of men from my generation have: the attitude that you weren’t even supposed to know anything about women, that they were frightening or something to be made fun of. When I went back to my high school’s twenty-fifth reunion recently, I noticed that the men immediately went right back into the adversarial business that we had shared back in the fifties. When I was growing up men and women were raised in the atmosphere of what used to be called “the war of the sexes.” One of the macho-comic aspects of The Bushwhacked Piano was to deal ruthlessly with the women in the novel, using satire as a purgative. I hope, though, that I’m coming closer to an authentic presentation of women in my recent books, a vision that maybe has something to do with me casting off some of my own ignorance about women. I’d say that a big part of my education about women has come from having three daughters. I wonder what type of place I’m helping to prepare for them, what societal vices I’m perpetuating for them. These are the kind of moral issues I want to deal with in my writing. I don’t sit around worrying about what nations are invading other nations; I don’t understand those issues.

INTERVIEWER

Working here at the ranch must make your writing habits a lot different than those of most writers. What kind of routine do you have?

McGUANE

Let me give you what my dream day would be, if I could stick to it. It would be to get up early, get all the horses and cattle fed so that wouldn’t be hanging over our heads, eat a bowl of cereal and make some coffee, and then go to some really comfortable place and just read for three or four hours. Most of my morning reading for the past ten years has been some form of remedial reading, my personal list of things I feel I should have read, all those books that make me feel less than prepared when I sit down as a writer. For example, this last year during the winter—a season when I have lots of time to read here—I read the King James Old Testament. I’d never read it. I’ve known for thirty years that I was supposed to have read it, but I never did. All this type of reading is a steady scrubbing away of the possibilities of guilt, of the fear of pulling my punches when I sit down to write because I feel inadequate in my education. I think you should expect a writer to be a true man of literature—he should know what the hell he’s talking about, he should be a professional. So this kind of preparation is one thing I’m trying to get covered, knowing, of course, it’s a lifetime project. Anyway, after I read I spend three or four hours in the afternoon writing, and then I go back working on the horses until dinnertime comes, eat dinner, and then spend the evening reading things I just want to read until it’s time to go to sleep. Of course, lots of things go wrong with that schedule. Part of it depends on the season, and there’s days you’ve promised to do things with the children, or days you’d rather go fishing or hunting, or days when there’s a problem with a horse and it takes four hours to get it straightened out. But that’s the pattern I strive for. 

INTERVIEWER

What comes first when you begin new work?

McGUANE

I hate to keep speaking in analogies—Charles Olson said that the Sumerian word for “like” meant both “like” and “corpse,” and that the death of a good sentence is an analogue—but with some things you just have to use them. When I start something it’s like being a bird dog getting a smell; it’s a matter of running it down in prose and then trying to figure out what the thing is that’s out there. Sometimes it might be a picture. This morning when I was writing I was chasing down one of those images. It was just a minute thing that happened to me while I was recently down in Alabama. We had rented a little cottage on the edge of Mobile Bay and at one point there was stormy weather out on the bay; I wandered out to see what kind of weather it was and the door blew closed and locked me out of the cottage. I thought about getting back inside and I sat down and there was one of those semi-tropical warm summer rains starting to come down like buckshot. Somehow the image of stepping outside to see what’s going on and having the wind blow the door shut has stuck in my head. I don’t know what that image is exactly, or what it means, but I know that ever since I came home I’ve been trying to pursue that image in language, find out what it is. That image begins to ionize the prose and narrative particles around it so that words are drawn in, people and language begin to appear. That’s when things are going well. When that’s happening, any reader will recognize that flame-edge of discovery, that excitement of proceeding on the page that is shared between the reader, the writer, and the page. You’re feeling that gathering energy as it burns through the page. And it’s not a made-up thing that you’ve laid on the page, it’s an edge that you feel going through it. To me, it has always come in narrative form. Sometimes the process draws in these adversarial relationships, as with these rivalries, which are not a conscious thing on my part.

INTERVIEWER

Once this “ionization process” begins to occur, do you know in advance where these relationships are going to be taking you? Or is it a process of discovery for you? 

McGUANE

The latter. I begin to feel where the fiction is going on its own and then I begin to guess at what the consequences of certain things would be. Let’s say that you’re riding your bicycle on a warm October day down the old road in front of the ranch here, and you’re three miles from the house and you begin to think, what if it starts to snow? That’s the kind of question I begin to ask while I’m writing. I may only have written about the bicycle ride and then I start thinking about the snow, positing the things that could happen. It’s a cloud chamber: you have these clouds first and then you drive electrical charges through it and things begin to take shape. That’s how I write—with a lot of “what if’s?” Procedurally what I do before I start is to make a deal with myself that I am willing to revise to any degree that is necessary. I have to make that deal in a very sincere way: I assume I have all the time in the world to finish a book because I know it may take many revisions before I get it right. Ninety-Two in the Shade took six or seven complete drafts. Once I’ve made that deal with myself, I’m free because as I’m writing I can try any kind of expansion of the armature of the novel as it goes, knowing that if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, I can try something else. I’m not going to say, “God, there’s fifty pages I’ve just wasted.” I don’t let myself think in those terms. I’ll also admit that I’ve outlined every book I’ve ever written before I’ve started it. Then I’ve thrown out every outline relatively early on. It continues to seem important to make those outlines because their wrongness energizes what I finally find, whereas that doesn’t seem to happen if I simply start and roll on. But if I begin by trying to live up to the outline and then find forceful reasons not to use it, then I’m getting somewhere. 

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about how you decide to leave things out of a book? In Nobody’s Angel, for example, you chose to leave out the scene where Patrick discovers that his sister is dead.

McGUANE

Whether or not that was a good idea I can’t comment on, but here’s the way I arrived at it: I decided that the situation had been prepared for to the degree that the reader’s version of it would be better than the writer’s. I also thought there was a grave danger of having almost anything that was said seem to be a trivialization of it. So I decided to say nothing. That was a tough choice and it wasn’t a choice where I did it and immediately knew it was exactly the right thing; it was just my best judgment under the circumstances. I’m very interested in what’s left out in fiction and in the stops a writer imposes on his material. Montaigne said that there’s no better way that the power of a horse can be seen as in a neat and clean stop. There are great cutting horses who can run and run continuously, making all kinds of moves back and forth, but they’re limited horses because they don’t know when and where to stop. A great horse, though, like that roan out in back, will make a tremendous move and then stop: he knows that the cow is held, even though the cow is in a complete state of confusion, and he’ll hold that position until he is threatened again by a cow trying to return to the herd, and then crack, he’ll start again and then stop. This is so much more powerful a thing for an animal to do than simply roaring back and forth in front of the herd to prevent that cow from returning by sheer athletics.

INTERVIEWER

You lay your plots out for readers differently in each of your books.

McGUANE

Sure. Imagine a good gambler who is playing an important poker hand, the way he lays his cards down makes all the difference. With a certain number of cards, a certain number of the enemy are falling off their chairs, so the sequence of the cards can often determine who wins the hands. A writer needs to play his hand very carefully; he doesn’t need to play fifty-two card pickup with the reader and throw the whole deck in his face just because he’s got control of the deck. That’s not playing cards at all.

INTERVIEWER

One suspects that you’ve probably identified with all your main characters fairly strongly. Is that identification essential to your creative processes, or could you write a book from a perspective that is utterly foreign to you?

McGUANE

Writing a book from that kind of a perspective is one of the things I love to plan to do, but I wonder if I could ever do it. I was trained on protagonist-centered fiction, and the first way I learned to write was to view the world from a single perspective—the protagonist’s. I often wonder, given how much work it is, whether or not I could go the distance in a full-length novel in a point of view that is utterly alien to my own. I wonder how inventive I would be with that form. Nabokov obviously could do it, but he’s so detached. And he is far more boring than it is proper to admit. The game level is much higher in his kind of work, just as it is with Robert Coover, or Borges, or any of those other systems writers. But for some reason I’ve never been drawn to that kind of fiction.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you’ve never been very interested in the movies and don’t really know much about it. Didn’t that make the move from writing fiction to writing screenplays seem especially difficult? 

McGUANE

No, it didn’t seem difficult. It’s a bit harder if you’ve been writing screenplays to go back to writing fiction. Especially after you’ve seen some movies made from screenplays, you know there’s no sense in your doing a lot of interior decorating because somebody else is going to be building the sets. So you just write “Interior, the First Security Bank,” in your script and that’s all the evocation of atmosphere that you need to supply. Then you write the dialogue. Once you’ve written screenplays and you go back to writing fiction, you realize the weight of being the full production company for the novel.

INTERVIEWER

Has your involvement with screenplays affected your notion of fiction writing?

McGUANE

It’s made me rethink the role of a lot of the mnemonic things that most novelists leave in their books. The worst about these things is probably Faulkner, who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero. We all read Faulkner in a similar way; we move through these muddy bogs until we hit these wonderful streaks, and then we’re back in the bogs again, right? Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 until 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven. Movies are like that: people just can’t sit there, elbow-to-elbow with each other and stand ten boring minutes in a movie. Oh, they will to a degree if they’re prepared enough about the historical moment, if they’re watching Gandhi or something, but not usually. At any rate, I think I go more for blood now, scene by scene in my writing, than maybe I would if I had never had that movie training. But basically it would be more appropriate to ask me if having to do my own grocery shopping has affected my writing. According to reviewers, I’ve spent the last ten years of my life in Hollywood, but to tell the truth I have logged less than thirty days in Los Angeles. Total. I do have one level of interest in movies, and that’s that I like to read screenplays. They’re little books. If I hear there’s a wonderful new movie out and I can get my hands on the screenplay, I’ll read that rather than go to see the movie itself. I enjoy shooting the movie in my mind. I love to read plays for the same reason.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “Contrary to what people think, the cinema has enormously to do with language.” Do you mean that the cinema relies on dialogue?

McGUANE

There’s only one thing that you can’t be without when you set about putting together a movie deal: you can’t do without a script, the “material.” This material is always some kind of bundle of language, it’s a book or a screenplay. You can’t take any director in the world and go to a financing entity (like a studio or a bank) and make a deal without that bundle of language. Producers always come back to the same point: who’s got the book or who’s got the best hundred and twenty pages of writing? Yet that point is often disguised. Screenwriters are not particularly prized members of the moviemaking community, and as soon as things get rolling suddenly it’s the director who’s the star, or an actor. But when that movie is over and they’re ready to go back and make another one, suddenly they’re desperate for a writer or a book. That’s the irreducible element in the moviemaking business. And in most movies you go to, the characters are continually talking. You get the impression in reading from the auteur-theory days of cinematic criticism that there’s no conversation in films, that they’re all silent movies. And yet if a Martian were to come down and analyze what’s happening in films, he’d say, “These humans never shut up. They have pictures of humans and they’re talking all the time. They get in machines and they talk in the machines and then they lean out of the window of one machine and talk into the window of another machine.”

INTERVIEWER

One of the legends that grew out of your work on The Missouri Breaks was that you wrote the script and then Marlon Brando showed up wanting to change everything. Supposedly you two holed up for a week in a motel to thrash things out. Any truth to that story?

McGUANE

None. The closest thing there was to that story is that Brando did have ways he wanted to do that film: he wanted to be an Indian and he had two pet wolves that he wanted to be in the movie; moreover, he wanted these wolves to kill the girl’s father, wanted them to jump up on the girl’s father’s horse and eat him. So I was told to go out to Los Angeles and see Brando and get the wolf stuff stopped. I went out there and Brando was at home and I spent a couple of days with him. I had a wonderful time but we never talked about the movie at all. We just talked about literature. You know, he’s a very erudite guy and really smart, a kind of crazy-connections smart. At the time he was reading a history of the Jesuits in Minnesota and a book about Louis Leakey’s skulls and the prehominids in Africa. He’d get up in the morning and dress, gather all of his books together, and then get back in bed with his clothes on and read all day. He’s on the verge of being downright scholarly. So that’s what we did there, and when he eventually went off and did the movie he wasn’t an Indian. I still don’t know what he was. He was this kind of tubby Irish killer. I know many people hated that goofy, wild humor he injected into the movie but I appreciated it.

INTERVIEWER

What about your involvement with movie directing? I would imagine that directing Ninety-Two in the Shade must have been a difficult task for various reasons: it was your first film, it was based on your own novel, you were unfamiliar with the technical aspects of moviemaking . . .

McGUANE

The technical aspects of moviemaking aren’t that complex, and anyone who’s ever directed would say that. There are technical components of the movies that are very complicated but no director knows them. Maybe Hal Ashby or Nick Roeg and a few other guys know the editing process, which is impossibly difficult to figure out, but I don’t know of any director who really understands what the state-of-the-art sound or camera equipment is. For that kind of technical know-how you have to rely on your cameraman or sound man to give you what you want to see and hear, or on your editor to give you the narrative sequentiality you want. A director has to rely on the people around him. I had never directed before, and I’m not particularly delighted with the job I did, but at the same time it became clear pretty fast that this was just another typewriter and I had to sit there and write as good a tale as I could.

INTERVIEWER

Instead of having Skelton killed at the end, you changed the conclusion of the movie and gave it a kind of wacky, funny ending. Given the kind of relationship that was developing between Skelton and Nichol, I could believe the new ending, but I wondered what your own thoughts were in making that change.

McGUANE

First of all, unless you have a lot of money in your budget, you’re forced to shoot out of sequence. So as I started doing the film I began wondering about the relationships of all the different parts, and I wound up shooting the ending both ways. You just happened to see a version of the movie with the happy ending; other people see it and it has the other ending. It was released with both endings and they tried to find the one that would play best. That’s called not having the final cut.

INTERVIEWER

Which ending do you think works best?

McGUANE

The ending as it was in the book is probably the better of the two, but the happy ending was fun and I thought it was amusing with Warren Oates reading that crazy letter and his angler going off into that surrealist Zululand, wading ashore with his trophy. 

INTERVIEWER

Are you interested in directing other movies?

McGUANE

I don’t think so. Strangely enough I was offered the directorship of A Star is Born. Cute, huh? But while I was making Ninety-Two in the Shade, I remember thinking what a pale experience it was compared to writing fiction. At first it was rather frightening, with all these people around and a lot of equipment and a lot of power tripping going on, but then soon it had become as if I were trying to say something with this extremely ungainly typewriter. I kept thinking over and over, this is so much less good than writing fiction, because I’d get an idea and then I’d have to move all this junk around to shoot it, and then by the time I did that, inertia had set in again. That’s why movies have to be so well planned, because that’s the last chance you have to be really inventive; there’s not much room for invention at the process level. At any rate, I don’t think I’d want to direct again.

INTERVIEWER

Does writing about Montana, or about the West in general, present some special challenges for a writer?

McGUANE

Part of the difficulty for me has to do with the lack of attachment between people and place that I was talking about earlier. So an aspect of this crisis lode that I’m trying to mine as a fiction writer is that I have to make some kind of ligature of connection between people and place. That has to happen, but it doesn’t happen here in the West, as has often been thought, by simply stationing human beings in this grand landscape. There’s actually something much stronger than that going on between people and places out here. It’s more numinous in the sense that “place” for my little daughter Annie is that tree that keeps the heat off her while she’s on the swing set. That’s what place is for her much of the day and that’s what place is for anybody else, even though the nature of that place is different for someone from Montana than it is for someone from New Jersey, somehow. It’s not different simply in the calendaresque way, but it’s hard to pin down how place really affects people. Somebody said that nobody is born a Southern writer—Poe is not a “Southern writer”—it’s something you elect to be; you let place influence you or you decide it doesn’t. I know people from Texas or Montana who are absolutely urbane. Do we think of Donald Barthelme as being a Southern writer? Or Tom Wolfe? But I know people from Cairo, Illinois, who consider themselves to be deeply Southern.

INTERVIEWER

You’re obviously one of those writers who has chosen to be influenced by place.

McGUANE

I want to find a way to profit from having spent half my life out here, particularly the half of my life that has been superimposed on a really fragmented upbringing. I’ve struggled to have a sense of place; as a kid I was always saying, “When I grow up I’m going to go and live at Uncle Bill’s house in Sakonnet and work on a lobster boat.” But very early on I decided that as soon as I could I was going to go out West. I did, at fifteen, when I went out and worked on a ranch, so my fantasy life became my real life. Today, even though that fantasy is one of the most banal elements of my life, I’m still excited about it. I certainly don’t want to become one of those regional writers who collect funny phrases, but I do think you can use nature to charge a fictional landscape with powerful results. I have no interest in replicating Montana or rendering landscapes in a recognizable way, but I do know there is something forceful about these landscapes that should turn up in language.

INTERVIEWER

Is the myth about men and women being freer out here in the West really true?

McGUANE

The air of the fresh start is alive here. People are willing to accept the idea that you can pull your life out of the fire and turn it around completely. It’s an echo of gold mining days.

INTERVIEWER

Or the story of some Midwestern kid who comes out here, becomes a famous writer, and winds up being Montana’s cutting horse champion for three straight years.

McGUANE

Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? As time goes by, I feel closer to Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Scott Fitzgerald—drifters from the Midwest. You fetch up somewhere. It just happens.


Author photograph by Marion Ettlinger.