Writer, rancher, fisherman and conservationist Thomas McGuane is the author of nine novels, including The Sporting Club, The Bushwacked Piano, Ninety-Two In The Shade, Nobody’s Angel, Something to Be Desired, Keep The Change, Nothing But Blue Skies and his latest, The Cadence of Grass.
His publishing credits also include To Skin A Cat, a collection of short stories, An Outside Chance, a collection of essays on sport, Some Horses and The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing. McGuane edited the 1992 Best American Sports Writing and has written for numerous magazines.
He also directed the film version of his novel Ninety-Two in the Shade, wrote the screenplays for Rancho Deluxe (starring a young Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterson and Elizabeth Ashley) and the would-be epic Missouri Breaks (starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson) as well as Cold Feet with Jim Harrison.
Tom McGuane attended Michigan State University and Yale University and was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. He lives with his family, dogs and horses in Sweetwater County, Montana, which is in southwestern corner of that state.
Robert Birnbaum: In preparing to talk to you I looked you up on an Internet search engine. More than half the entries were for your fishing and horse books.
Tom McGuane: Well, I’ll be darned.
Robert: Not a lot of references to your fiction.
Thomas: That might be a symptom of the fact that I haven’t published any fiction in a good while. Those two books that I did—I can’t say that anyone particularly wanted to do them—I had a two-book contract at Knopf, and I did the fishing book with them and—I’m not sure—but I think maybe they felt they had to do it. It went through seven hard-cover printings.
Robert: Wow. Aren’t they happy?
Thomas: I know. Then the little horse book got as high as number six at Amazon. They were surprise performances for both their publishers. And they are doing pretty well in paperback. There is something to be said about pulling together that sort of thing, these things that you only do when passion strikes. You sit down and write while it lasts and eventually, in this case many years, they turn into books. It’s not my main thing, by any means. Are we taping yet?—
Robert: Yes we are…
Thomas: …I’ll change nothing. Let’s say you have something you care about. There was a wonderful book by a West Indian writer about cricket. You probably know this book. It’s a kind of a Communist book in a way.
Robert: Oh, by C.L.R. James.
Thomas: Yes, a fabulous book. That’s at a very high level. Any book that deals with cricket or fishing or horsemanship—you can’t just sit and draft it. Maybe you go to 50 cricket matches and then something comes to you and you sit down and write twelve pages. And you do that sort of thing for 12 years—in the case of my fishing book—for 30 years. Eventually the corpus of a book emerges. It needs to be repaired and revised and redone and there it is. But those kinds of books couldn’t be written in any other way.
Robert: Maybe there is some kind of Library of Literary Oddities that can be put together? McGuane on fishing and horses, the James book on cricket, Eduardo Galeano on soccer, Joyce Carol Oates on boxing, Jim Harrison on food.…probably you get 20 or 30 titles by writers about subjects they are passionate about.
Thomas: Fishing is the most published subject outside mathematics there is. Did you know that?
Robert: No. Why is that?
Thomas: Just because it’s such a non-directional daydreamer’s game. It bites at the language process.
Robert: So why did you write a novel? (laughs)
Thomas: I didn’t write one until I felt strongly about some things. It was interesting the last time I saw you I got this great review from Frederick Busch. The best review I think I have ever gotten for a book. I had this kind of funny experience with that book [Nothing But Blue Skies] which was that it got great reviews everywhere except the Sunday New York Times.
Robert: Which in the publishing world seems to be the most important.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s in every independent bookseller's desk. What was strange about it was Jay Parini, the guy who wrote the review, had a book out at the same time. We were on a book tour at the same time. Tom Brokaw called me and said, “God, we couldn’t even do that in TV.” My son-in-law Walter Kirn is a novelist and his first book came out and he got a bad review in the NY Times. He was out on book tour, he made one stop, and his publisher called up and said, “Go home.” And cancelled the tour. All based on that. You could have a book reviewed in the LA Times by Saul Bellow and get a rave review and it wouldn’t make much difference, but a graduate student in the NY Times can kill you.
Robert: So your last book got good reviews except one.
Thomas: Yeah and it overcame that review and did pretty well. But it was a book my publishers were thinking could be kind of a break-out book because there was a lot of enthusiasm before the book came out from places like Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. It sold better than anything I ever wrote.
Robert: What would a break-out book be for a writer who has been around for a while and been well received?
Thomas: They were hoping to have a best seller of some kind. I’ll never have a best seller. I’m just too weird to have a best seller (laughs).
Robert: You seem to be a writer who is more focused on writing and not so much on the business of writing.
Thomas: Well, I think that’s true...I saw that V.S. Naipaul’s last book, the first printing was 20,000 books. I mean he’s a great writer and we know that and the world knows it. A book on shopping addiction, they’ll run off 100,000 just cause they are in the mood.
Robert: Who west of the Hudson River or out where you are is a best selling successful writer?
Thomas: Nobody. We all feel we are a little bit invisible to the Northeast Corridor. That it’s hard for us to persuade people in the East that interesting lives are lived beyond Buffalo. I remember H.L. Mencken’s famous remark when people were praising Willa Cather—who truly is a great writer by any standard at all—he said simply, “I don’t care what happens in Nebraska.” And that’s pervasive and there is just no sense fighting city hall on this issue. I go back to a thing John Barth said to me when I was very young. He said, “You want your book to do well enough so that you can publish another one.”
Robert: The Woody Allen strategy of filmmaking.
Thomas: It’s a legitimate strategy. It means you can go on and have career if you don’t starve out—I have always been able to find other things to do, other ways to make a living. Worked in films, I did a lot of journalism at one point. I’ve had some success at ranching and so I really have no complaints about it. We all are filled with complaints—let me be honest— but I don’t have an overwhelming ones.
Robert: You’re not bitter.
Thomas: I’m not bitter.
Robert: Tell me about the title of your new novel, The Cadence of Grass? It has a Buddhistic ring to it. Does it signal a writer coming to a different place in his approach to fiction?
Thomas: One of the things, I think, that dawns on you living where I do—maybe you don’t have to live in some place where you are so dominated by weather and those seasonal issues as we are and without over-interpreting those, you go through two periods. The first period is that you are making an effort to make a life in this place and the indifference of the landscape sort of drives you crazy. You can tell that the land doesn’t care whether you stay or go or flourish. And then you get this feeling of being relegated to what nature is going to do. And you begin to like it. You like the feeling of living in a cycle that is more important than you are. And that that has a kind of rhythmic quality and an eternal quality that is reassuring. That’s a little of what that title is about.
Robert: And yet the story reminds me of a Carl Hiaasen/Southern Florida story. You have serious whackos here in some odd situations.
Thomas: Yes, I know. They are serious whackos. Of course there’s the voice of the person who is not remotely like that, Bill Champion. I consider him a stick in the flow. Something to reference. At the same time you always have the burden to write an interesting story.
Robert: Was your detailed description of the horsemanship and riding—was that a kind of nose-thumbing gesture directed at Eastern readers?
Thomas: No, no, no. For some reason the concretia that is associated with these kind of ritual processes is something that has always appealed to me. I used to fish with a guy who had an old wooden rowboat. He was a great fisherman. I was always trying to figure out why he was such a successful fisherman. He did everything in a ritualistic way. He had a bailing can that was an old Maxwell house can, cut off in this perfect way. Always went there. Oars went there. After you anchored the anchor went here, the line was coiled there. The whole outfit wasn’t worth a hundred dollars. It was nearly all he had, but it was so deeply ritualized that it had a kind of glow. I don’t know what this all means, but there is a lot of that in horsemanship. It’s part of its appeal in a way. All those things the vacarros did, hang up their bridles with the reins hanging down. Most people would just throw the reins over the hook where they hang everything. Well, if you hang 'em like that when you go to ride the horse, they’ve got these two weird curves in them. So the vacarros would hang their reins hanging in opposing directions. They’d pulled the bridle down on the horse and the reins would hang like they are supposed to. There are thousands of little things like that associated with horsemanship or fishing or aviation. I think it’s a mistake for people not to have a good bit of that in their lives. A good bit of reassuring ritual—empty ritual being the thing to be avoided.
Robert: That assumes that people have something they really care about beyond folding their newspaper in a certain way.
Thomas: People do a surprising amount of it—getting the leaves out of the gutters and the things they do with their lawns and when they repaint their house and how they keep track of stuff. One of the things you notice in Japanese literature, there is nothing that is not ritualized by those folks.
Robert: Do you read a lot of Japanese literature?
Thomas: Yes, quite a bit. Before I left on this trip I read Lady Sasheen’s As They Crossed the Bridge of Dreams. It’s a wonderful melancholy little book, that’s almost a novel in a way. I love Japanese literature. My son is a nut for it. My son is a blade smith and he studied in Japan.
Robert: Meaning he makes blades for knives?
Thomas: He’s a knife maker. He’s a great knife maker. His heroes are all Japanese blacksmiths. He went over there and lived for a while. His house is full of Japanese literature. He’s always pressing it on me.
Robert: So he makes the steel and forges the blades?
Thomas: Yeah, he does quite well at it. He won the New York Blade Smith Show last year, the biggest one in the world. He’s self-taught. He studied under a man in Japan—they have these characters called national treasures, individuals are called national treasures. This man was a national treasure, in his 70’s and Thomas worked with him for a while and the man told him in a very direct way, “You can be the best in the world.” He forges steel, Damascus steel. His knives are art-quality knives. He’s usually about a 100 knives behind in filling his orders.
Robert: What does he charge for them?
Thomas: He gets as much as $5000 a knife.
Robert: How many does he make in a year?
Thomas: 50. But not all at that price. He makes ceremonial swords and those are even more. He makes cooking and hunting knives that are less. His specialty is these complex folding knives.
Robert: Where does he live?
Thomas: In Montana. All my children live nearby.
Robert: That must be great?
Thomas: It is great.
Robert: How often do you venture from Sweet Grass County?
Thomas: I get out, I guess. I’m kind of reclusive when I’m there. In fact Bruce Weber, the photographer, had a place up there for a while, said I was the most reclusive person he’d ever known. Which I don’t think is quite fair. When I’m there I’m just so happy at my ranch, as you would be. It’s a beautiful place, full of books. Lots of dogs and horses. I’m not suffering there by any means. But we get restless from time to time. Usually in the middle of winter we’ll go some place, do something very conventional. I took all the kids to Florida this year, went to the beach.
Robert: Did you go fishing?
Thomas: Oh yeah. And then I make fishing trips. My cousin and I—he lives here in Massachusetts—we’ve been fishing together for 50 years. And we’re still going fishing together. We started with little hand lines fishing for chogees, off the pilings and this year we’re in the southern Bahamas fishing together. We’ve always done it.
Robert: You are on your way to NYC. What’s that like after months and months in seemingly splendid isolation?
Thomas: We’ll soon find out. I haven’t been there in 10 years.
Robert: 10 years, wow. Do you watch television?
Thomas: Yeah, I watch hockey games. CNN. I’m really a print guy, though. Even to the point of reading newspapers on the Internet. I’m pretty excited when I can get a real newspaper and whip around with it. My wife—it frustrates me sometimes—she just won’t keep up with the news unless she sees the 6 o’clock news at night. As soon as we go traveling and she can get her hands on a real newspaper then she is fully informed again.
Robert: What’s your local newspaper called?
Thomas: I live between two local newspapers, The Billings Gazette and the Bozeman Chronicle. Neither are bad papers. They are extremely local in focus, which is fine because you can get the other stuff pretty easily. I get up in the morning and read the NY Times everyday. But scrolling through it is not the same deal.
Robert: Let’s get back to what caused you to reenter the stream of fiction writing? Pieces of this new novel appeared in various publications…
Thomas: As I went along, some things struck me as being stories, two or three were in the New Yorker, one of them was in the Harvard Review, another was in Grand Street. I was writing this damn thing for such a long time. I would want to publish something periodically and something would jump out that would look like a story. I reentered it because I was preoccupied with some thematic things. Without pretending to be a feminist, I really started getting the idea that one of the things that was kind of septic about our lives was there was always these alpha males camped at the middle of our lives. It might be the Ford dealer in Big Timber or Ariel Sharon. It might be Yasser Arafat or Robert Mugabe or George W. Bush. It was always this pattern and I began to think, “Well, you know maybe that’s what’s wrong with everything.” Half way through writing this novel Montana elected for the first time a woman governor and she was a complete monster. (both laugh) Her campaign slogan was, “I promise to be the lapdog of Industry.”
Thomas: Yeah. (laughs) She’s a Neanderthal. Right-wing Republican. So my theory, which was you could take a random sampling of women and drop them all in key positions and everything would get better—and I still kind of believe that—but she’s taken some of the wind out of my sails.
Robert: Evelyn [in The Cadence of Grass] is pretty admirable. I don’t know about her mother.
Thomas: There are only two characters who have my approval in this book, Evelyn and the rancher Bill Champion.
Robert: What about the cross-dressing…
Thomas: …oh yeah, he has my approval. I have basically two versions of ‘the bad male.’ One is the old imperial ego guy, like Sunny Jim and then Paul, who sort of the antichrist. As somebody who was raised an Irish Catholic I had to make the devil sort of appealing because that’s what we believed.
Robert: Perhaps I didn’t read the book closely enough, did Paul Crusoe actually kill the motorcyclist or was he taking the rap for Sunny Jim as he later claimed?
Thomas: Paul’s responsible. I heard a new version of that [kind of story]. I was at a rodeo a couple of weeks ago and this old guy, he was a rancher—a no good guy—had died and I ran into his neighbor and we were talking about him. He said that this guy [the unpleasant old rancher] when he was growing, he and two other guys went over to the Paradise Valley in the Upper Yellowstone, were stealing cattle and hauling them to Billings and selling them. They got caught and two of the boys were the sons of well-to-do ranchers and third one was a poor kid. So the parents of the well-to-do kids said to the poor boy, "If you take the fall for our sons and go to prison, your ranch will be paid for when you get out." I knew that guy that did the time. He did seven years in the penitentiary and he’s been ranching for 30 now. Probably was his only shot at ranching.
Robert: Was it a good deal for him?
Thomas: Probably from his point of view it was good deal. Because it’s been at least 50 years since you could go to work on a ranch and end up having a ranch. It’s basically an economy that belongs to hereditary land-owners and there is no way into it. Except if you are somebody like me who comes in from left field.
Robert: Is it a money-losing business?
Thomas: Yes. Net net, sans subsidies, Montana agriculture is about 300 million below the line. The whole thing, all of it.
Robert: Are you done with movies?
Robert: Do people still call you?
Thomas: Yes and every now and then I get tempted to do it. There are some appealing things about it. Writing a novel is like doing the Appalachian Trail by yourself. You're out there, nobody to talk to nobody knows what you are doing, and if you have this great burst and you want to run out of your office and tell about this great scene, nobody is remotely interested. When you work in film there are always people around and you can interact and that has its appeal. But it’s changed very much since the days I worked in it. I did a project about five years ago at Universal that didn’t get made and it was really the best script I’d ever written. But it was done at the same time they were doing Titanic and all the smaller things just shriveled up. What I noticed when I was out there was that the atmosphere had changed and it was a much more committee-oriented, bureaucratic kind of thing. It was like going to work for Merrill Lynch. You can’t walk in and pitch your idea to two guys and have them say, “Let’s go for it.” That isn’t ever going to happen. Everything is in development and the downside of it is that it’s wildly time consuming. Projects like [Jim] Harrison’s Legends of the Fall are in development for 14 years. You are just watching your life go by. The temptation is that it’s almost the only way you can make a living writing unless you are associated with a university.
Robert: It doesn’t strike me that very many writers are in it for the art of it.
Thomas: I was in it for the dough. No other reason.
Robert: When you did 92 in the Shade, wasn’t it what we would call today an independent film?
Thomas: Well, It was United Artists. It was off-shore financing, Sir Lew Grade financed it.
Robert: It seemed like you had your own way.
Thomas: Yeah, I did. But the budgets were so small. We had a million bucks. They basically said, “You have 36 shooting days; if you get a brain tumor you still have 36 shooting days. You have a million dollars. If it’s a million and one, we hope you have a dollar bill with you.” You knew what the deal was.
Robert: Then you wrote Rancho Deluxe and then came the epic The Missouri Breaks. [with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando]
Thomas: Oh God! As the producer said, "The pus actually got on the walls." (both laugh) It was a nightmare.
Robert: What do you see looking forward in your life?
Thomas: If there is a complaint I have about my life, I’m a little bit overloaded in a way. I’d love for life to thin it down for me just a little bit. But we seem to get up in the morning and have a wild run and pass out at the end of the day.
Robert: When you were a subject of magazine articles in the '70s and perhaps '80s there was a scene out in your neighborhood. In the '90s Russ Chatham the painter started Clark City Press. What's going on out there now?
Thomas: Well, there never was to the degree that it seemed to be. Somebody would get the idea that there was and then People magazine would wear out a rental car by the time they constructed the idea of an urgent scene happening there. There is a bit more of one in Missoula, which is about a five hour drive from us. It would be like you going to Portland, Maine [from Boston]. That’s a little bit more of an urban thing. There’s a wonderful new book called Breaking Clean out by a woman who left a ranch up there named Judy Blunt. It’s really a good book. She’s the newest addition to that scene. Bill Kittredge and Jim Welch and there are some very estimable writers living there. They live in town and they have the Oxford Bar they all go to. It’s very different over in southwest Montana where I live. [Jim] Harrison’s just moved there, just last month. So he’s there. Russ Chatham is there. William Hjortsberg, he and I went to college together, he lives close to me. Tim Cahill. Walter Kirn. There are others, I’m just not thinking.
Robert: The university writing program has a good reputation?
Thomas: Yes it does. It’s the 2nd oldest one in the nation.
Robert: Where did John Edgar Wideman teach?
Thomas: At Wyoming. I taught there last year.
Robert: Are you going to continue to teach?
Thomas: I’m not sure. I liked it so much and I got so involved in it was the only thing I could do. I had some pretty interesting young writers. But probably not. It’s an ‘either or’ for me. I can’t just do that and get involved in their projects, which I did, and see them on-and-off hours and then go home and want to work on your novel. It’s out of the question.
Robert: Your classmates at Stanford were Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry. Wendell Barry?
Thomas: People were still around in the community when I got there. A lot of the people would get that Stegner fellowship and stay around Palo Alto for a while so the effect of them would still be there. Kesey was around, Robert Stone was still in the neighborhood. Larry McMurtry, James Houston. There was a lot going on. Stegner didn’t have much to do with it. He thought we were all crazy hippies. He actually told me that he thought it was the end of civilization.
Robert: The program?
Thomas: No the people. We were just hippies and he couldn’t process that.
Robert: Is there a movement to identify a Western school of, in the way that Southern writing is marked?
Thomas: That attempt is in place. I don’t see a lot of merit in it, frankly. (laughs) I get asked about that, “What about the Montana school of writing?” I have this filthy little trick I play. I answer, “It would be like talking about the New Jersey School of writing.” They all burst into laughter. I say, "Wait a minute. We’ve got Walt Whitman, We have William Carlos Williams. We have Allen Ginsberg. We can put Bruce Springsteen in there. We can put Stephen Crane. Maybe New Jersey writing is not as negligible as you horse laughers think it is?” (laughs) Anyway, I don’t even believe in American writing. I’ve heard myself saying that a lot. The problems of writing, the issues of writing are really universal. They are the same in Mexico, the same in the Yugoslavia and the same in Montana. And getting away from that notion you are headed down the twisted road to local color and other things.
Robert: There are certainly claims that there is a New York kind of book. Tom Wolfe’s controversial essay [Stalking the The Billion Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for The New Social Novel] he scoffed at writers who weren’t doing what he was doing…
Thomas: …lots of research. He does believe that strongly. But almost no one takes him seriously as a writer. Actually I think people are too hard on him. He does have some merits as a writer. I used to love his essays. I think he has polarized people against him with these preposterous sweeping statements about what everybody else is supposed to be doing.
Robert: And there is his attack on Mailer, Updike and Roth…
Thomas: I remember that attack. It was based on their sales figures being below the targets. What an attack for an artist to launch.
Robert: What writers do you stay in touch with?
Thomas: I’m not a big letter writer. [Jim] Harrison is a great letter writer. He is in touch with everybody on earth, it seems. I hardly see anybody. What’s happened to me, is not by design, I went off in this kind of remote place and I actually started doing what they do there. I’ve been running cattle for 30 years. So almost everybody I know is a rancher and somehow associated with that. That’s not to say that makes me into a real rancher. I’m just a real writer. But we are talking on a daily basis who do I see. I see people who are ranching or training horses.
Robert: Do you keep up with the literary world? Is there a good bookstore in your locale?
Thomas: Yes, there is a good bookstore and I keep very much up. The bookstore in Bozeman is on the NY Times list for the best seller list. It’s a good bookstore. I read reviews. I do all these things that you probably shouldn’t do. I keep up. I like to know what’s coming out and if it interests me I get and read it.
Robert: You did mention something about forestalling old age. Any profound observations about growing old?
Thomas: Well, no and I feel like I better get them. Because here it comes. I’m so active that I haven’t had some of the problems that other people my age have had, yet. But I’m going to have them, I know that. The fact that nothing has really changed in my M.O. for about 30 years, it’s going to change. One of these days I’ll get some kind of weird health report or something and it will scare me. Something that will make me change what I do. In fact if Advil weren’t so plentifully available I wouldn’t be lying to myself like this. There’s no doubt I have more aches and pains then I used to have. You know, I get up at five everyday and I’m on horseback half the day and then on to other physical things. That’s not going to last too much longer, but that’s going to be okay with me. I noticed this spring when I got a really good case of the flu, it was just a great time for me. It reduced the scale of things. I thought, “God, I can really concentrate on reading.” I didn’t feel very well, but I put the blanket over my lap and I got a big pot of tea and I read all day long. I haven’t been able to do that. I thought, “Gee, it was nice having the room cleared a little bit.”
Robert: Are you giving a lot of thought to what you are going to be writing? What are you going to write next?
Thomas: Yeah, in fact, I have some things are outlined in my head and it's one of the things I am really looking forward to this year. I have been working on a novel—since I finished this one—it’s always about a year out on these things. You never quite put your shoulder to the wheel until the current one is on its way. I’ve got this novel I can wait to get back working on. I get enormous gratification out of the process of writing. We’re talking about approaching old age. I’ve learned that is the reward of writing, that is, doing it. It’s not a particularly reliable reward because you are often not always able to get there. You are not able to write as well as you want. You are not able to feel inspired or energized. But it does come. [But] It is the only reliable reward. Everything else is subject to these crazy outside things. Fashions that are going through…
Robert: What do you mean that you are not able to write as good as you want?
Thomas: I have this set of criteria of how it’s supposed to be. I don’t have long spells of glee about what I am doing but every now and then—you work your way and you actually write better than you think you can. And those are happy times. The novel is a very rigorous kind of master. It’s not lyric poetry. You have a lot traveling to do getting from point a to point b. Any sustained narrative has sheer mechanical problems and all sorts of things have to be dealt with.
Robert: Are you happy with The Cadence of Grass?
Thomas: I’m pretty happy with this one. I had the odd feeling at the end of this book that I was just fine. Whatever happens. That’s as good a feeling as is available to me. I said to myself, “There.”
Robert: In the scheme of things, you think of one book at a time?
Thomas: That’s right.
Robert: Do you keep a notebook?
Thomas: Well, I am always scribbling things down that might get away from me. I have a pile of papers that are just scraps or just images that seem evocative. I always imagine it’s like going through sagebrush and there is the mouth of the cave, like every little kid’s fantasy. You can barely crawl in there and there is this big chamber on the other side. It probably has some hideous Freudian side to it. There are things that seem to be tags for some greater reality beyond even though you don’t know what that is. Like in Melville, the movement of a whale’s tail at the surface which is just a theme in the ocean implies the tremendous bulk of the whale—you are always looking for those kinds of things that imply something beyond. And you often have no idea what they are. Sometimes you write them out and you find there wasn’t anything there at all. No whale.
Robert: How far do you get before you will discard something?
Thomas: I’ve gone a long way on some projects and thrown them out. When you sit down to negotiate a new contract with a publisher and the publisher asks what you are working on. You try to give an idea what the book is going to be. I’m always careful to include the caveat that this thing could go up in smoke two years from now, I don’t really know.
Thomas: You have to know that, otherwise you will just doggedly do the bad ideas.
Robert: Okay. Thank you.
Thomas: Uh huh, thank you.